Trump’s lies, tribal loyalties and the limits of journalism

Via CBS

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Yelling louder about President Trump’s multitudinous lies isn’t going to change anything. Yet that’s what Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested last week when she wrote in frustration about the lack of public outrage over the 10,000 “false or misleading statements” Trump has made since his inauguration.

Sullivan argued that “to do their jobs, the news media can’t engage in business as usual,” and that they “have to bring some new tools and techniques — and maybe a new attitude — to the project.” Her suggestions were commonsensical: be more willing to label falsehoods as lies and stop using euphemisms, as The New York Times did on Twitter recently when it blandly described Trump’s ugly libel that doctors who are performing abortions are “executing babies” as “an inaccurate refrain.”

But the idea that a more aggressive attitude on the part of the press will persuade Trump supporters to embrace facts that they don’t already know is not just absurd — it misunderstands the role of the media and the limits of journalism.

Consider that, by a wide margin, the public already regards the president as dishonest. According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted two months ago, 65 percent of those surveyed said that Trump was dishonest while just 30 percent said he was honest. In other words, the message that Trump lies is already being heard loud and clear.

Consider, too, the swamp of misinformation and disinformation that many of Trump’s supporters are mucking around in. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance, found that “fewer than 30 percent of Americans who get their news via broadcast TV, CNN or MSNBC believe Trump has been honest about the Russia probe, compared with 61 percent of Fox News viewers.”

The reality is that the media we choose is based in large measure on our tribal identity, and that identity is far more powerful than mere facts.

Currently I’m reading a collection of essays by the late media theorist James W. Carey. Carey’s writing tends to be difficult and obscure, but some of his ideas are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in the 1980s and ’90s. Especially useful to this discussion is his argument that media serve two functions: “transmission” and “ritual.”

The transmission function of media is to inform. In Carey’s view, it’s much more complicated than that — it’s tied up in notions of power and the ever-accelerating speed of media (from the town crier to the printing press, from the telegraph to the internet), which enables them to encompass ever more people and territory. But its essence is clear enough, and it’s what we generally mean when we think about the media.

By contrast, the media’s ritual function serves to reinforce a sense of community and identity. “If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality,” Carey writes. Later, he adds, “ We recognize, as with religious rituals, that news changes little and yet is intrinsically satisfying; it performs few functions yet is habitually consumed. Newspapers do not operate as a source of effects or functions but as dramatically satisfying, which is not to say pleasing, presentations of what the world at root is.”

The problem, which Carey does not address because his work was published before the rise of partisan media, is that we are no longer reinforcing our shared sense of community with a mainstream newspaper and a daily visit with Walter Cronkite. Rather, we are hanging out with fellow tribe members in our own separate mediaspheres.

Seen in this light, calling more attention to presidential lying not only is ineffective but has the effect of confirming for Trump supporters that the mainstream press is not to be trusted and is fundamentally opposed to their interests and beliefs. At the same time, those mainstream outlets are themselves benefiting from tribal loyalties, as the anti-Trump majority rallies around newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. Yes, those outlets have reported factually, for the most part, on Trump’s many flaws, lies, and misdeeds. But they have done so in much greater quantity than would have been strictly necessary to transmit that information to the public.

Margaret Sullivan closed her call for more innovative approaches to reporting on Trump’s lying with this: “None of this, of course, will solve the problem. It’s unlikely to reverse the avalanche or slow the ever-increasing pace. But it may help an overwhelmed and numbed public find renewed reason to care.”

No, it won’t. Most of us are well aware that he’s lying, and some love him all the more for it. The function of news is to inform, of course. But it’s also to express and reinforce our common values. Sadly, hyperpolarization means that there no longer is one set of common values, but, rather, two, three, or more.

“Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said.

He was wrong.

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No reason for BuzzFeed to apologize for that explosive Michael Cohen story

I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.

At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:

While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:

On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.

Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.

BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].

My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.

Earlier: “Making Sense of the BuzzFeed Bombshell — and What, If Anything, Went Wrong” (WGBH News, Jan. 23).

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Of course there was collusion

It happened in plain sight. This isn’t a criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose report hasn’t been released and who may not have found any criminal offenses. But we can’t unsee what we all saw.

At Mother Jones, the indispensable David Corn walks us through it. He writes:

[William] Barr’s note is clear that Mueller did not uncover evidence Trump and his gang were in direct cahoots with Russia’s covert operation to interfere with the US election and boost Trump’s odds. But the hyper-focus on this sort of collusion — as if Trump instructed Russian hackers on how to penetrate the computer network of the Democratic National Committee — has always diverted attention from a basic and important element of the scandal that was proven long before Mueller drafted his final report: Trump and his lieutenants interacted with Russia while Putin was attacking the 2016 election and provided encouraging signals to the Kremlin as it sought to subvert American democracy. They aided and abetted Moscow’s attempt to cover up its assault on the United States (which aimed to help Trump win the White House). And they lied about all this.

Read the whole thing.

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Trump and Murdoch: Who’s using whom?

Rupert Murdoch. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Hudson Institute.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The stench of corruption emanating from the White House is so noxious that it can be hard to focus on outrages that truly matter. This matters: As long rumored, but not confirmed until this week, President Trump personally intervened in the merger of media giants AT&T and Time Warner in order to punish CNN, high on the list of “fake news” outlets with which he is perpetually enraged.

The revelation is contained within Jane Mayer’s 11,500-word examination of Fox News, which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker. As Mayer describes it (and as even the most casual viewer will attest), over the past few years Fox has metamorphosed from a right-wing news operation with a shaky grasp of the truth into something much more dangerous: a propaganda outlet for Trump that serves up steaming piles of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to its angry, fearful audience.

Not coincidentally, Fox News’ founder and guiding light, the international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, has emerged as one of Trump’s closest confidants. And Murdoch did not want to see two of his rivals merge, especially given that he had tried and failed to buy Time Warner himself just a few years earlier. Luckily for him, his business interests dovetailed with Trump’s hatred of CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.

As Mayer describes it, in the summer of 2017 Trump told his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, that the Justice Department should fight the merger. Citing “a well-informed source,” Mayer reports that Trump demanded action during a meeting with Cohn and his then-new chief of staff, John Kelly. “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened!” she quotes Trump as saying. “I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!” As the meeting was coming to a close, Mayer writes, Cohn told Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”

But the Justice Department did indeed fight the merger, all the while denying any political motivations. Trump’s opposition to the merger, though, has long been thought to be driven by his hatred for CNN. Cohn himself believed it, according to Mayer. And as I argued a year and a half ago, blocking the merger could have resulted in Time Warner’s falling into Murdoch’s hands, thus fulfilling Rupe’s ambitions and giving him an opportunity to Foxify CNN. (Not that CNN isn’t in serious need of fixing, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Adding to suspicions that Trump was acting on his wish for retribution rather than by genuine concerns about the social consequences of such massive mergers was that there really didn’t seem to be much of a legal case against it. The AT&T-Time Warner deal is something we all ought to be wary of. But under current theories of antitrust law, there was little reason to block it. In fact, the Justice Department’s efforts to stop it were shot down by the courts at every step along the way, and it recently got the final go-ahead.

As Jordan Crook and Danny Crichton explain at TechCrunch, the two companies are complementary businesses rather than competitors. Time Warner is mainly a content company; AT&T is a distributor. Their combination is regarded by many economists as a “vertical merger” that could actually benefit consumers, Crook and Crichton write, by giving them “access to a more comprehensive set of services, at a lower price, while still generating profits.” Besides, in a world in which the entire media landscape is now dominated by Google and Facebook, it may be that the only way to provide competition is by supercharging other media companies.

Now I’ll grant you that in my perfect media world, I would not only have ruled against the merger of AT&T and Time Warner but I’d break up Google and Facebook as well. But it’s the world of the corporate titans, and we’re just living in it. Given that, there is every reason to oppose governmental intervention motivated by presidential pique rather than by genuine regulatory concerns.

Mayer’s report appears destined to become part of the bill of particulars that the Democratic House is assembling as it investigates Trump’s corruption and possible crimes. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he has “long feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the ‘enemy of the people.’”

Meanwhile, another media company seeking favors from the White House is playing it safe. According to David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post, the cell-phone company T-Mobile, which is seeking to merge with its rival Sprint, has spent $195,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel since announcing the proposed deal nearly a year ago — far in excess of what the company had ever spent there previously.

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Trump’s SOTU speech was a cynical exercise in pretend bipartisanship

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi in happier times. 2017 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Was President Trump’s bipartisan outreach in his State of the Union address Tuesday night a cynical attempt to recast himself as something he fundamentally is not? Or was it an even more cynical attempt to be seen as bipartisan while winking and nodding to his hardcore supporters? As Lily Tomlin once observed, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” I thought it was clear that Trump was pursuing the latter course. So take this as my attempt to stay ahead of the Tomlin curve.

The conventional take was expressed in The Wall Street Journal by Gerald Seib, who wrote: “When Donald Trump became president, there was reason to believe he might govern as he campaigned, almost as an independent, standing apart from both parties, perhaps even with an ability to bridge the two parties because he was beholden to neither of them. And for the first half an hour of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, that was the very tone he set in his remarks in the House chamber. He opened his arms to Democrats, declaring that Americans are ‘hoping we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.’”

But is that really what Trump did? Consider:

  • Near the beginning of his speech, the president said that “the agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda.” Referring to the Democratic Party as “the Democrat Party” is a slight that goes back decades, as then-NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepherd explained in 2010. It was a calculated way for Trump to signal to his base that he was reaching out to Democrats while actually doing the opposite.
  • Trump refused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the courtesy of introducing him, as is the longstanding custom at the State of the Union. Kate Feldman noted the snub in New York’s Daily News, although she also observed that “he and Pelosi did share a cordial handshake during the first standing ovation.”
  • Much later in his 82-minute stemwinder, Trump began ranting about the evils of socialism — “as if it had gotten particularly far along,” snarked Jim Newell in Slate. Trump’s remarks were apparently aimed at Congress’ two high-profile democratic socialists, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and they seemed to have little effect. The #NeverTrump conservative Max Boot bemusedly pointed out in The Washington Post that Trump “equated [socialism] with Venezuela rather than, say, Denmark.” But it was a sign that Trump is prepared to go full Red Scare in what will surely be a desperate attempt to win re-election.

“Trump and his advisers can see he’s in a corner,” wrote the liberal commentator Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. “He needs to try to get some footing with a less confrontational, more unifying posture that most Presidents at least optically try to govern from.”

Other than Trump’s phony bipartisanship, his customary fear-mongering about undocumented immigration and crime, and his introduction of some truly admirable guests (every one of whom exuded a decency that was entirely absent from the podium), what struck me most was an unforced error in which he directly drew a parallel between himself and Richard Nixon.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said, a direct reference to the ongoing investigations into his campaign, his businesses, and his presidency. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”

As Philip Bump pointed out in The Washington Post, Nixon said something remarkably similar in his 1974 State of the Union speech: “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” Bump’s riposte: “It wasn’t quite enough, as it turned out.”

The Democrats’ official response to Trump’s speech, delivered by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, was unusually effective as these grim rituals go. Abrams gave an upbeat, warm talk while simultaneously scorching Trump over the recent government shutdown (she said she helped serve meals to out-of-work federal employees) and talking frankly about voter suppression. Abrams lost a close race for governor last November amid accusations that a variety of Election Day problems had resulted in thousands of voters in Democratic areas being turned away.

Who was watching Tuesday night? Mainly Trump voters. According to CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta, people who viewed the speech “were roughly 17 points more likely than the general public to identify as Republicans.” And they liked what they saw, with about 60 percent giving it a thumbs-up.

Trump’s approach was pretty standard for him: Appeal to his shrinking but loyal base in the hopes that he can parlay their enthusiasm into another Electoral College victory. We are a very long way from knowing whether it will work — or even if he’ll be on the 2020 ballot given the various investigations swirling around him. It didn’t work out for Nixon. The final chapter of the Trump presidency has yet to be written.

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A malign force from Nixon to Trump: Revisiting the Roger Stone biopic

Roger Stone. Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

How sleazy is Roger Stone? After the on-again, off-again Trump operative was arrested last week and charged in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, news reports invariably brought up Stone’s boasts that he and Richard Nixon were thisclose. Once again, we were subjected to those appalling photos of the Nixon tattoo that adorns Stone’s back. And the Nixon Foundationsprung into action on Twitter:

When even an organization devoted to “the consequential legacy and relevance” of the original unindicted co-conspirator wants nothing to do with you, it may be safely assumed that you are no ordinary political dirty trickster. And surely no one would call Stone ordinary.

What we should call Stone is the man who, more than anyone else, inflicted the presidency of Donald Trump upon us. It is easy to dismiss Stone as a foppish buffoon. But in rewatching the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” this week, I was reminded of how crucial Stone was to the entire Trump political enterprise — starting in the late 1980s, when Trump visited New Hampshire at Stone’s instigation.

“The Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production,” says Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote a profile of Stone for The New Yorker and is one of the principal talking heads in the 2017 film, directed by Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro.

By Stone’s own telling, his dirty tricks extend all the way back to elementary school, where he rigged a mock election between his candidate, John F. Kennedy (Stone was not yet a Republican), and Richard Nixon.

“I went to the cafeteria, and as each kid would go through the cafeteria line with their tray, I would tell them, ‘You know, Nixon has proposed having school on Saturdays,’” Stone recalls. “Well, then the mock election was held, and to the surprise of the local newspaper, Democrat John Kennedy swept this mock election. For the first time ever, I understood the value of disinformation.” With a slight smirk he adds, “Of course, I’ve never practiced it since then.”

Stone has somehow managed to convince himself that he has political convictions that go beyond notoriety and cashing in. Yes, at one point we learn that he holds libertarian views on issues such as reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana. What really motivates him, though, are the same inchoate resentments that have helped elect the Republican presidents he’s served.

“Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principles, are losers. Those are bitter losers,” he says, sitting in a limousine in a pinstriped suit, wearing a lavender hat and his trademark round dark glasses. “Everything I have done, everything I have worked for, is to propel ideas and a political philosophy that I want to see dominate in government. Donald Trump has now elevated the issues that I believe in: anti-elitism that was first identified by Richard Nixon, mined by Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump.”

Anti-elitism as a “political philosophy.” Well, it carried Trump to the presidency, and it continues to resonate with his base. In Stone’s world, as in Trump’s, winning is its own justification.

The range of dirty tricks attributed to Stone, often exaggerated by the man himself, is breathtaking. Arranging for a campaign donation from a phony socialist group to Pete McCloskey, Nixon’s 1972 Republican primary opponent. Destroying Pat Buchanan’s 2000 presidential campaign by means too complicated to explain here (Trump played a cameo), thus helping to ensure the election of George W. Bush. Instigating the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that stopped the 2000 Florida recount. Breaking the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. Possibly even supplying CBS News with the George W. Bush National Guard documents that led to the departure of several journalists from the network, including anchor Dan Rather, after they were shown to be fake.

Toobin again: “Roger is unique in my opinion because he embraces infamy. He doesn’t worry that you’ll think he’s a sleazeball. He wants you to think he’s a sleazeball.”

Among other things, “Get Me Roger Stone” demonstrates that the Trump campaign had its origins many years ago, tying together such nefarious figures as Roy CohnPaul Manafort, Stone, and Trump himself. Trump and Manafort spoke extensively to the filmmakers, with Manafort saying, “Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald.”

It seems likely that Stone would have been regarded as more of a real player and less of a sideshow freak if he hadn’t gotten caught up in a sex scandal of his own while working for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, thus relegating him to the shadows. Indeed, in the film we see Stone in such ridiculous situations as yelling into a megaphone while wearing a Shepard Fairey-style T-shirt of Bill Clinton emblazoned with the word “Rape” and holding forth on Alex Jones’ conspiracy-mongering “Infowars” program.

Roger Stone may come across as an absurd character. But as the film makes clear, he’s also one of the most important political operatives of the past four decades. As “Get Me Roger Stone” winds down to its conclusion, his unseen interlocutor asks, “What message would you have for the viewers of this film who will loathe you when the credits roll?” Stone’s answer: “I revel in your hatred. Because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.”

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Making sense of the BuzzFeed bombshell — and what, if anything, went wrong

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

BuzzFeed News reports that “two federal law enforcement officials” have seen evidence that President Trump “directed” his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie under oath when he testified before Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller takes the unusual step of having his spokesman denounce the story as “not accurate.” BuzzFeed’s reporters and their editor vociferously insist that they and their unnamed sources are standing behind their account.

Within 24 hours last week, what looked like a serious threat to the Trump presidency had collapsed into one big honking mess. Nor does it appear that we’re any closer to resolution. A number of media observers have pointed out that no other news organization has been able to confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting. That’s significant, of course. But no one has been able to knock it down, either.

So what is going on? Let me offer a speculative answer, based on the belief that Mueller’s office, BuzzFeed’s journalists, and their sources are all trying their best to tell the truth: everyone is right. BuzzFeed’s story is essentially accurate, but is flawed in some important way that hasn’t been explained. Mueller, worried that Trump might blow up the investigation, took advantage of those flaws to discredit the entire story. If that was Mueller’s intention, it worked, as Trump praised him after the statement was released.

In the past few days we’ve heard much about the famous mistake that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made when they were hammering away at the Watergate story for The Washington Post: They attributed an otherwise accurate account of corruption within the Nixon White House to grand jury testimony that did not exist. Their error was seen as so damaging that they offered their resignations.

“Look, reporters make mistakes. News organizations make mistakes. In Watergate, we made a mistake, a very serious mistake,” Bernstein said this past Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” But, he continued, within days the Post was vindicated when it became clear that the information they had reported was true.

The parallels between BuzzFeed’s story and Woodward and Bernstein’s erroneous attribution, though, only go so far. I think a closer analogy involves James Comey’s testimony in June 2017 before the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly after Trump had fired him as FBI director. Comey was asked about a Times story that had been published four months earlier claiming that members of Trump’s campaign “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” Comey replied that “in the main, it was not true.”

As with the BuzzFeed report, no details were offered as to what was wrong with the Times story. Here we are, more than a year and a half later, and we still don’t know what Comey was referring to. Was it the sourcing? The underlying facts? The Times article reporting on Comey’s complaint noted that there was considerable evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government even then. Today, of course, there is far more evidence, going all the way up to Trump’s extremely guilty campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

If we assume that the basic facts of BuzzFeed’s report are correct, then what might have gone wrong enough for Mueller to issue his extraordinary statement? Writing at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall speculated that the information came not from the special counsel’s office but, rather, from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The BuzzFeed story specifically cited the special counsel’s office, but Marshall pointed out that it’s not always clear who is doing what. “The SDNY is notoriously more porous to the press than the Special Counsel’s Office,” Marshall wrote. “So we have a kind of information that seems more likely to come out of New York and an office there that seems considerably more likely to leak.”

National security blogger Marcy Wheeler, while praising the BuzzFeed report in some respects, was also critical of it for making “an absurd claim that this is the first time we’ve heard that Trump told someone to lie.” She added: “The BuzzFeed story is important for the concrete details it adds to a story we already knew — and these reporters deserve a ton of kudos for consistently leading on this part of the story. But it has unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies, in a way that could have detrimental effect on the country’s ability to actually obtain some kind of justice for those lies.”

The journalists who worked on the BuzzFeed story are first-rate. Jason Leopold, despite some serious ethical lapses early in his career, is a dogged investigative reporter who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Anthony Cormier, whose byline also appeared on the story, won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2016 when he was with the Tampa Bay Times. BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith is well regarded.

And yet there was one obvious shortcoming. According to The Washington Post, BuzzFeed’s outreach to Mueller spokesman Peter Carr for comment before publication was unacceptably vague: “Importantly, the reporter made no reference to the special counsel’s office specifically or evidence that Mueller’s investigators had uncovered.” When the story was published a short while later, the Post continued, “it far exceeded Carr’s initial impression.”

If BuzzFeed failed to give the special counsel’s office fair notice of what was coming, that would help explain the controversy that broke out after they hit “publish.” But it still doesn’t tell us what, if anything, BuzzFeed got wrong — or whether we’ll ever know.

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The tainted BuzzFeed News blockbuster: Where do we go from here?

Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.

Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.

So where do we go from here?

First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.

Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.

Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.

Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.

Sunday update: Trump’s lawyer-in-charge-of-digging-the-hole-deeper, Rudy Giuliani, weighs in:

And here’s BuzzFeed reporter Anthony Cormier refusing to back down:

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Yes, the networks were right to give Trump airtime. No, it wasn’t worth watching.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.

And yet that’s where we are. One activist, Ryan Knight, who tweets under the handle @proudresister, went so far as to post the phone numbers of the major broadcast networks so that his 267,000 followers could protest Trump’s appearance. “Call the networks & tell them you don’t support their decision to give airtime to a man who lies to the American people, demonizes immigrants & emboldens right-wing extremism,” Knight tweeted. His call had gotten more than 7,600 likes and nearly 4,900 retweets as of this morning. The hashtag #BoycottTrumpPrimeTime proved popular as well.

I’m not saying there weren’t real concerns about the wisdom of allowing Trump a prime-time platform. The extent to which we ought to give normal treatment to this most abnormal of presidents is an ongoing dilemma for journalism. But it would have been virtually unprecedented not to go along with the White House’s very first request for a prime-time Oval Office address. “There are three things going on: a tradition of saying ‘yes,’ that they probably want to feel it’s newsworthy and important, and that no news executive wants to be accused of partisan bias by not airing it,” former CBS News president Andrew Heyward told Scott Nover in a piece for The Atlantic. I also thought Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight put it well:

Silver added: “So put him on and fact-check him.” Which is what they did, or at least tried to do. How effective were they? Ah, well, that’s where the major networks — our last truly mass medium — fell short. I did not attempt a comprehensive assessment, but I clicked back and forth between CBS and NBC and was unimpressed. Mostly there was a lot of so-called analysis pointing out that neither Trump nor the Democrats, in the form of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s response, had moved toward any sort of compromise.

CBS’s Nancy Cordes deserves some credit for pointing out that the Democrats really can’t give in lest it embolden the president to shut down the government every time he wants something. Contrast that with the Associated Press’ mind-boggling tweet in which Trump and the Democrats were assigned exactly equal portions of blame:

Cable news actually did better. I didn’t have a chance to watch them during Trump’s address, but afterwards CNN and MSNBC put up some unstinting chyrons about the president’s lies while their guests talked about what we had just seen. Two examples: “Trump Falsely Claims Mexico Trade Deal Will Pay for Wall” (CNN). “Trump Claims Southern Border Is Drug Pipeline. Fact: Most Narcotics Enter U.S. Via Ports of Entry” (MSNBC). No surprise there. But on Trump’s favorite network, Fox News, Shepard Smith was allowed to offer some rare prime-time fact-checking in which he found Trump’s claims fell well short of the truth on matters such as violent crime by undocumented immigrants, drugs at the border, and whether the president’s trade deal with Mexico would pay for a wall.

Everywhere I looked this morning, news outlets were filled with fact-checks. I thought it was notable — although less notable than it would have been a year or two ago — that both The New York Times and The Washington Post referred to the president’s falsehoods in their lead stories. The Times’ Peter Baker, in his third paragraph, described Trump’s address as “a nine-minute speech that made no new arguments but included multiple misleading assertions.” The Post’s Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez called it “a forceful and fact-challenged televised plea” in their very first sentence.

More than anything, what struck me about Trump’s address, the Democrats’ response, and the news coverage was a sense of fatigue. No one’s mind was changed. It didn’t seem like anyone was into it, especially once it was clear that Trump was not going to take the constitutionally dubious step of declaring a national emergency. Trump himself had said at an off-the-record lunch earlier in the day that he’d been pushed into giving the speech against his instincts. He, Pelosi, and Schumer seemed tired and disengaged, going through the same points they’ve been making over and over. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, was pretty cranked up. But she was the exception.

In the end, Trump’s address wasn’t worth getting agitated about, wasn’t worth watching, and won’t be remembered.

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Five ways to de-Trumpify your life in 2019

Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at WGBH News.

The dawn of a new year is yet another opportunity for President Trump to make news in all the wrong ways — and another invitation for the media to obsess over every tweet, insult, lie, and outburst of unpresidential behavior.

Aside from denigrating journalists as purveyors of #fakenews and as the “Enemy of the American People,” Trump has actually been good for the media. Digital subscriptions at newspapers are up, audiences for NPR and political podcasts are growing, and donations are on the rise at ProPublica and other nonprofits. At the same time, though, the relentless coverage of our dysfunctional, falsehood-spewing president has resulted in an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

I’m here to help. No, we can’t ignore Trump — not when his policies result in the deaths of children at the border, or when he refuses to take seriously the apparent murder of a journalist at the hands of the Saudi regime, or when one of his former aides implicates him in crimes. But we can retake control of our news diet, slowing the torrent of Trump news, semi-news, and alleged news to a more manageable flow. Not only will it help us stay sane, but it will allow is to react appropriately when something genuinely terrible takes place.

Here, then, are five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life in 2019.

1. Ignore nearly all stories about Trump’s tweets. The media can’t disregard the president’s sociopathic Twitter stream entirely. Someone has to pay attention. All too often, though, some awful thing Trump said on Twitter winds up overshadowing some even more awful thing he’s doing IRL. You might say Trump does that deliberately. I don’t think so; rather, I think Twitter is where he expresses his truest self. But we need to keep it in perspective.Granted, it can be difficult when he posts a beauty like this:

But, really, was that any worse than what he tweets out on a daily basis? It’s time for all of us to move Trump’s tweets off center stage and to regard them as the sort of low hum that’s given off by fluorescent lights — always there, but usually not noticed.

2. Pay more attention to the world around you. I don’t mean you should take a walk in the woods, although of course you should. I mean you should immerse yourself more deeply in non-Trump news that’s unfolding both internationally and nationally — stories about climate change, war, rising fascism, space exploration, religion, sports, culture, and yes, stories about kindness and compassion and hope.

Politics is just one part of the human experience, which is something that political junkies like me have to remind ourselves of from time to time. And Trump is just one part of politics. Yes, Trump has been good for the business of journalism, but the downside is that news organizations load up their home pages and social media feeds with all things Trump in order to drive clicks and digital subscriptions and to drive us over the edge. We don’t have to take part.

3. Become a news locavore. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in your community, make changing that one of your New Year’s resolutions. It’s not just that it’s important. It’s that people who might have wildly divergent views about national politics usually have less trouble finding common ground at the local level.

There’s an old saying that there isn’t a liberal or conservative way to pick up the garbage, and there’s something to it. More important, though, is that when we get to know each other as individuals, what separates us tends to fade away and what we have in common moves to the forefront. As the journalist James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic shortly after the 2016 election, “at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.” (Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, expanded that idea into a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”)

Part of making a commitment to localism means supporting local media. National and regional news organizations need your support, of course, but so does the startup community website you might be lucky enough to have — or even the corporate-owned weekly newspaper that employs your town’s only watchdog journalist. What she reports on is at least as important to your life as anything you’ll find in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

4. Stop watching cable news talk shows. If there’s a big breaking news story, you’re going to tune in CNN, and so am I. But the social value of the talk shows that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcast during prime time every evening is close to zero.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I recently watched Rachel Maddow’s and Sean Hannity’s top-rated talk shows on MSNBC and Fox, respectively. And though Maddow’s liberal program was more fact-based than the right-wing conspiracy theories that Hannity offers these days, both shows earn their money by exploiting the political polarization that defines life in 21st-century America. CNN’s idea of an alternative is to have liberal and conservative guests argue with each other.

There is quality news on television. At the national level, the network nightly newscasts are still respectable, and the “PBS NewsHour” offers substance, even if it’s too heavy on eat-your-peas seriousness. Surveys show that local TV newscasts are more trusted than other forms of news, and Boston’s choices are many and varied.

5. Change your relationship with social media. This is a tough one, which is why I’ve saved it for last. For most of us over a certain age, when I talk about social media I’m talking mainly about Facebook, with its 2.2 billion active monthly users. We all know the existential crisis Facebook is dealing with over the exposure of its repeated privacy violations, its manipulation of users via a Russian disinformation campaign, and its mysterious but highly effective algorithm, which keeps users engaged by feeding them content that plays into their fears and anger.

And yet Facebook is just so damn useful, connecting us with family and friends in some pretty powerful ways. For those of us who communicate for a living, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms allow us to expand our reach beyond what was previously possible.

What should we do? Some people are quitting Facebook, and I respect that. Most of us, though, aren’t going to go that far. I’m not, at least not yet. Instead, I think we all ought to resolve to try to use Facebook responsibly in 2019. I can’t define what that means. But I imagine it involves some combination of using it mainly to stay in touch with people who are important to us, interacting on local and special-interest groups, and ignoring politically charged content even when we agree with it. It’s just not healthy.

None of these steps is aimed at eliminating President Trump from your life. That wouldn’t make any more sense than running around with your hair on fire every time he lies. There is going to be plenty of Trump news in 2019. Special counsel Robert Mueller will presumably submit his report at some point. The Democratic House may take up impeachment. The president will continue to act unpredictably, rashly, and, in many instances, horribly. We can hardly ignore it all.

But we can pay attention to what really matters — while at the same time downgrading Trump from a constant crisis to more of a dull, aching pain that never quite goes away.

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