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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Hold the uplift, and make that shower extra hot

9780399161308_custom-4ec8d3a4e862d4dbc42dedad106a97aecb8dda44-s2-c85Earlier this month my wife and I were watching the news when Patrick Leahy came on to talk about something or other — I don’t remember what.

Leahy, 73, has been a Democratic senator from Vermont for nearly four decades. Normally that stirs up feelings that, you know, maybe it’s time for the old man to go back to the dairy farm and watch his grandchildren milk the cows.

But I had been reading Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” And so I felt a tiny measure of admiration for Leahy stirring up inside me. He hadn’t cashed in. (His net worth — somewhere between $49,000 and $210,000 — makes him among the poorer members of the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) He hasn’t become a lobbyist. He apparently intends to die with his boots on.

That amounts to honor of a sort in the vomitrocious Washington that Leibovich describes in revolting detail — a town of sellouts and suckups (“Suckup City” was one of his working titles), a place where the nation’s business isn’t just subordinate to the culture of money and access, but is, at best, an afterthought.

If you plan to review a book, you shouldn’t “read” the audio version. I have no notes, no dog-eared pages to refer to. So consider this not a review so much as a few disjointed impressions of “This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.”

Mark is an old acquaintance. He and I worked together for a couple of years at The Boston Phoenix in the early 1990s before he moved on to the San Jose Mercury News, The Washington Post and, finally, The New York Times. (Other former Phoenicians who’ve reviewed “This Town”: Peter Kadzis in The Providence Phoenix and Marjorie Arons-Barron for her blog.)

There are many good things I could say about Mark and “This Town,” but I’ll start with this: I have never known anyone who worked harder to improve. It was not unusual for me to leave the Phoenix in the evening while Mark was working on an article — and to come back the next morning to find him still at it. The result of all that labor is a finely honed sense of craft that most of us can only aspire to.

As virtually every reviewer has pointed out, “This Town” begins with a masterful description of the funeral service for “Meet the Press” impresario Tim Russert, an ostensibly mournful occasion that provided the media and political classes in Washington with an opportunity to carry out the real business of their community: talking about themselves and checking their place in the pecking order.

There are so many loathsome characters in “This Town” that you’d need an index to keep track of them all. And Leibovich puckishly refused to provide one, though The Washington Post published an unofficial index here. For my money, though, the lowest of the low are former senator Evan Bayh and former congressman Dick Gephardt — Democrats who left office but stayed in Washington to become highly paid lobbyists. Bayh, with his unctuously insincere laments over how broken Washington had become, and Gephardt, who quickly sold out every pro-labor position he had ever held, rise above (or descend below) a common streetwalker like Chris Dodd, who flirted not very convincingly with becoming an entrepreneur before entering the warm embrace of the film industry.

Also: If you have never heard of Tammy Haddad, Leibovich will remove your innocence. You will be sadder but wiser.

Because Mark is such a fine writer, he operates with a scalpel; those of us who have only a baseball bat to work with can only stand back in awe at the way he carves up his subjects. Still, I found myself occasionally wishing he’d grab his bat and do to some of these scum-sucking leeches what David Ortiz did to that dugout phone in Baltimore.

Mike Allen of Politico, for instance, comes off as an oddly sympathetic character despite the damage he and his news organization have done to democracy with their focus on politics as a sport and their elevation of trivia and gossip. (To be sure, Leibovich describes that damage in great detail.) I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that Mark was tougher on Allen in a profile for the Times Magazine a few years ago.

Thus I was immensely pleased to hear Mark (or, rather, narrator Joe Barrett) administer an old-fashioned thrashing to Sidney Blumenthal. It seems that Blumenthal, yet another former Phoenix reporter, had lodged a bogus plagiarism complaint against Mark because Blumenthal had written a play several decades ago called “This Town,” which, inconveniently for Sid Vicious, no one had ever heard of. More, please.

I also found myself wondering what Leibovich makes of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ever-rightward drift into crazyland. The Washington of “This Town” is rather familiar, if rarely so-well described. The corruption is all-pervasive and bipartisan, defined by the unlikely (but not really) partnership of the despicable Republican operative Haley Barbour and the equally despicable Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.

No doubt such relationships remain an important part of Washington. But it seems to me that people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and their ilk — for instance, the crazies now talking about impeaching President Obama — don’t really fit into that world. And, increasingly, they’re calling the shots, making the sort of Old Guard Republicans Leibovich writes about (Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, for instance) all but irrelevant.

But that’s a quibble, and it would have shifted Mark away from what he does best: writing finely honed character studies of people who have very little character. “This Town” is an excellent book that says much about why we hate Washington — and why we’re right to keep on doing so. Hold the uplift. And make sure the shower you’ll need after reading it is extra hot.

A solid debut by Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour

Not long after Tim Russert’s death, I realized that my aversion to George Stephanopoulos was not nearly as deep-seated as my aversion to David Gregory. So I switched from “Meet the Press” to “This Week” and haven’t looked back. Among other things, “This Week” regular George Will is a great entertainer, and where else other than the New York Times can you get a regular dose of Paul Krugman?

Stephanopoulos, of course, decamped for morning television months ago, never to be seen again — at least not by me. Today, at long last, marked the much-anticipated debut of his permanent replacement, former CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour. I don’t think the occasion warrants a lot of analysis. But surely a little is in order. A few points.

1. I don’t watch “This Week”; rather, I listen to the podcast. So if there were any changes to the set, I wouldn’t know. For what it’s worth, I thought Amanpour, her guests and her panelists all sounded fine.

2. It was a good first week for Amanpour. She had two major gets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. If Amanpour’s questions failed to elicit any major news, neither did she embarrass herself. In any event, with rare exceptions, top government officials are going to say what they’re going to say regardless of what they are asked.

3. Though “This Week” seemed pretty much the same as it always has, Amanpour did shake things up a bit, as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid joined the roundtable from Spain. Over time, I’m hoping that Amanpour turns the entire format upside-down, eschewing political chit-chat for real substance. Perhaps this was one small step in that direction.

4. Jake Tapper deserves kudos for the way he handled “This Week” as a fill-in host the past several months. By taking a few chances (especially by embracing of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s suggestion that he add fact-checking to the show), Tapper demonstrated that there’s still some life left in the old format.

If, for some reason, Amanpour doesn’t work out, or if ABC News decides to use her elsewhere, then Tapper would be a natural — and I think viewers would accept him far more readily than they would have before his stint as a substitute.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

David Gregory grooves one for Rice

Could David Gregory have possibly done a worse job in his interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on “Meet the Press” Sunday? More than anything, what stood out was the moment when he made her own false point for her, sparing her the trouble of having to do it herself:

GREGORY: Let’s talk about Iraq. The president’s final visit there as president happening just a week ago today, and what became, obviously, the most noticed image of that trip was this press conference with the prime minister and a member of the press throwing his shoes. As the president pointed out, as you’ve pointed out, certainly a sign of freedom in Iraq.

RICE: Yes.

GREGORY: You got a press corps that can speak its mind and act the way it wants to act.

Notice that the Gregory quotes contain several English-like phrases, but that he is not actually speaking English. But to my point: Gregory cites the shoe-throwing incident as “a sign of freedom in Iraq,” following up with: “You got [sic] a press corps that can speak its mind and act the way it wants to act.”

Well, yes, for those members of the press who are willing to pay the consequences. The reporter who threw his shoes at Bush, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, was reportedly beaten so badly after the incident that there was blood on the floor.

Al-Zeidi was then hauled off to jail, where he sits to this day. He is scheduled to go on trial on Dec. 31, and could face as much as 15 years in prison, although such a harsh sentence is reportedly not likely.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. You can’t assault the head of state from another country, standing next to your prime minister, and face no consequences. For that matter, if an American reporter had stood up at a White House news conference and thrown his shoes at the president, he’d be in trouble, too.

But Gregory, rather than make those common-sense observations, chose instead to say something completely untrue, making the interview even easier for Rice than it otherwise would have been.

Then again, Gregory had scored the first major interview with the secretary of state since Vice President Dick Cheney publicly bragged about his role in promoting torture and in going to war regardless of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And Gregory didn’t ask Rice about Cheney’s statements, either.

Gregory is not off to a good start in his new role.

Channeling my fears about David Gregory

Mickey Kaus: “The secret of Gregory’s success seems to be that he always spouts the CW that his mainstream producers want to hear (and think their viewers want to hear too).”

As I said the other day, I’m willing to give Gregory a chance. Essentially, though, I’m looking for him to be something he’s never been before: gusty gutsy [heh, heh] and interesting.

And his welcome-aboard interview with Tom Brokaw on Sunday was almost nauseating.

David Gregory to host “Meet the Press”

I could snark away, but I’d prefer to give David Gregory a chance to prove himself as the new host of “Meet the Press.” The announcement should come soon, according to the Huffington Post.

Of the Politico’s list of people who didn’t get the job, I’d have preferred almost any one of them — Gwen Ifill, Chuck Todd, John King, Katie Couric or Ted Koppel, though not Andrea Mitchell. But Gregory always appeared to be the leading contender, so the pending announcement is no surprise.

Gregory’s got the chops. My main problem with him is that he seems as though he’d rather be boiled in oil than be accused of liberal bias, which occasionally leads to his tying himself in knots to avoid acknowledging reality.

The late Tim Russert was not perfect. He was tough on Republicans but tougher on Democrats, and his prosecutorial style of questioning — “You said this in 1987, so why are you saying that now?” — often devolved into self-parody. But his enthusiasm, respect for his guests and engaging personality overcame his shortcomings, and I miss him. It looks like I’m going to keep missing him, though Gregory could grow into the job. If not, there’s always Bob Schieffer. (Sorry, but Media Nation is a Stephanopoulos-free zone.)

So now Tom Brokaw retires once again. I thought he was an ideal placeholder after Russert’s death, someone with the stature to maintain the “Meet the Press” brand while holding the infighting at bay until after the election.

Instead, Brokaw too often projected laziness, lack of interest and — in moderating the second presidential debate — even petulance. Brokaw was a fine anchor and he’s got a record he can be proud of. But he can’t go back to being an elder statesman soon enough.

Ted Turner’s so-called thoughts

Tom Brokaw yesterday conducted what might be described as an odd interview with CNN founder Ted Turner on “Meet the Press.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he conducted an interview with CNN’s odd founder, Ted Turner.

Anyway, here is the oddest part, which comes after a section in which Turner sings the praises of Vladimir Putin, even to the point of calling the KGB “an honorable place to work.”

MR. BROKAW: Your friend, Jimmy Carter, tried to be friendly with Leonid Brezhnev, and for his friendliness what did Brezhnev do?

MR. TURNER: Hell, I don’t remember. It was before I …

MR. BROKAW: He invaded Afghan …

MR. TURNER: … got involved.

MR. BROKAW: He invaded Afghanistan.

MR. TURNER: Well, we invaded Afghanistan, too, and it’s a lot further — at least it’s on the border of the Soviet Union or the former Soviet Union or Russia. A lot of these countries have changed names several times.

Good stuff if you enjoy train wrecks.

The not-so-big get

Check out the “Meet the Press” front page right now and you will see this: “Exclusive! Tim Pawlenty.”

Ganging up on Obama

I caught the podcast of “Meet the Press” early this morning and couldn’t believe my ears. Guest host Brian Williams devoted the first dozen or so minutes to pounding Barack Obama over his flip-flop on accepting public campaign money.

Fair enough. But you’d think someone would have brought up the fact that John McCain appears to be violating the campaign-finance law right now. Not Williams. Not McCain surrogate Lindsey Graham. Not even Obama supporter Joe Biden. At least Biden didn’t call Obama “clean and articulate.”

It’s one and out for Williams, who’ll be replaced by Tom Brokaw next week. Let’s hope that Brokaw is better prepared.

The right move

Tom Brokaw will host NBC News’ “Meet the Press” through the election.