Breitbart’s gushy Trump book presents ‘alternative facts’ on the first 100 days

WGBH News photo illustration by Emily Judem

If you are a stereotypical Massachusetts liberal (I plead guilty, your honor), the story of President Trump’s first few months in office is one of incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, all playing out beneath the penumbra of the burgeoning Russia scandal.

But that’s not how it looks to Breitbart News, the right-wing nationalist website that has served as Trump’s most outspoken — and outrageous — media cheerleader. In a new e-book titled “The First 100 Days of Trump,” Breitbart’s Joel Pollak describes the president in glowing terms.

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Trump keeps threatening to weaken libel protections. It’s time to take him seriously.

The ad that sparked a libel revolution. See the original at the National Archives.

Among President Trump’s few animating principles is his deep and abiding belief that the libel laws were created for his personal enrichment. Thus it should have surprised no one when White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said over the weekend that Trump may seek to dismantle a vital protection against libel suits for journalists who report on matters of public interest.

“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at,” Priebus said on ABC News’ “This Week” in response to a question by Jonathan Karl. “How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.” Priebus added that news organizations must “be more responsible with how they report the news.”

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Yes, ‘S-Town’ is voyeuristic. It’s also a brilliantly insightful look at the human condition.

Photo via Pixabay.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Warning: The following commentary contains spoilers.

As I was pondering “S-Town,” the podcast from “This American Life” that tells the story of a small Alabama town and one of its more colorful residents, an old line by the writer Janet Malcolm leapt into my head: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Somehow I was not surprised that someone else had the same thought. But whereas Gay Alcorn, writing in The Guardian, uses Malcolm’s observation to condemn the makers of “S-Town,” I think it’s more complicated than that. Malcolm was writing nearly three decades ago about a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who had no choice but to trust Joe McGinniss, the journalist-collaborator who betrayed him. Brian Reed, the host of “S-Town,” is operating in a far more egalitarian media environment, an age in which those who don’t like the way journalists tell their story will tell it themselves.

John B. McLemore, the brilliant, mentally ill protagonist of “S-Town,” may not have been entirely aware of what he was in for the day that he convinced Reed to investigate a murder that turned out not to have taken place. But McLemore never seems not to be in control of his own story — even after his suicide, even after Reed reveals some fairly shocking facts that McLemore himself had not been fully forthcoming about. Despite that, it is McLemore’s voice and sensibility that dominate. This is his story, even if it took Reed’s skill and nerve to tell it.

“S-Town” is the cleaned-up name for “Shit Town,” as McLemore called his hometown of Woodstock, Ala. McLemore is many things — a nationally recognized restorer of antique clocks; a highly intelligent liberal immersed in the right-wing culture of the white Deep South; a gay man whose sexual orientation is more or less an open secret. But it is his foul-mouthed, highly inventive monologues on subjects ranging from climate change to the alleged corruption of the local police department that capture our interest and draw us deeper into his damaged psyche.

Reed had pretty much set McLemore and Woodstock aside after his investigation of a murder evaporated amid a tangle of misunderstood facts and conspiratorial whispers. He returns after learning that McLemore had committed suicide in a particularly grotesque manner: he drank cyanide while ranting on the phone with the town clerk. Though McLemore obsessed over the details of global warming and the world financial system, and had long talked about killing himself, he’d given very little thought to what would happen after he died. He left no will, and he made no provisions for his elderly mother, who was suffering from dementia. Those oversights lead to the tensions that unfold over the final five hours of the seven-hour podcast.

“S-Town” isn’t really a story — or, rather, it is many stories, mostly unresolved. Mysteries fizzle. Plot lines lead nowhere. By the time it ends, we understand just how psychologically unbalanced McLemore was, especially during the last few years of his life. But Reed thumbs his nose at Chekhov’s rule that if a gun appears early in a story, then it must be fired before it ends. Did McLemore really bury a stash of gold out in the woods? Were the cousins up to no good or not? Why, after McLemore killed himself, did the town clerk not call his closest friends until after the funeral was over? Whatever became of McLemore’s “stepson,” Tyler Goodson? We never really learn.

But these are mere details. What makes “S-Town” riveting is the way Reed develops the characters of Woodstock, and especially of McLemore, peeling back more and more until there’s nothing left to show. It’s that unpeeling process that makes Gay Alcorn so uncomfortable. She writes:

Understanding another person is worthwhile; whether to make a seven-part podcast series about a person, when they never agreed to it, is another question, and one that Reed unfortunately does not address. The interviews, hours and hours of tapes left whirring away, were granted by a person who was not a public figure, a person Reed knew was mentally ill, and agreed to for an entirely different purpose. That requires an explanation.

Unlike Alcorn, I think “S-Town” is a lot more than a compulsively listenable story. Reed tells us something insightful about what it means to be a fully human, fully flawed person. Despite everything we find out about McLemore, some of it pretty disturbing, he is never stripped of his dignity. We are brought deeply into the life of another person and, in so doing, we learn something important about ourselves.

That is all the explanation needed. I think John McLemore would agree.

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The closing of the internet: Why online privacy and net neutrality matter to all of us

Jim Sensenbrenner. Photo (cc) 2008 by the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights.

It’s hard to imagine a less likely viral video sensation than Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. But there he was last week, all 73 years of him, wagging his finger at a constituent concerned about online privacy and telling her, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.”

Sensenbrenner’s lecture was a clarifying moment in the debate over the future of online privacy and digital democracy. After eight years of the Obama administration, whose telecommunications policies were more often than not in the public interest, President Trump and his Republican allies are rushing headlong into a future that is of, by and for the telecom companies. It’s a debate that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it should — and that could set the tone for how we communicate with one another for at least a generation.

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WGBH News publishes Northeastern students’ map project on indie coffee shops

My super Northeastern journalism students in Digital Storytelling and Social Media have reviewed and mapped their favorite independent coffee shops for WGBH News. You can find it here. A great job by everyone.

Fahrenthold and journalism’s limits; the power of local; and the Globe’s near-winners

Few reporters have ever had the kind of year that David Fahrenthold experienced in 2016. From exposing the Trump Foundation’s bogus and illegal practices to unearthing a tape on which then-candidate Donald Trump could be heard crudely boasting about sexual assault, Fahrenthold single-handedly defined large swaths of the presidential campaign.

Fahrenthold, a Washington Post reporter, was recognized for his efforts Monday with a Pulitzer Prize, which was surely among the least surprising Pulitzers in history. It represented the third year in a row that the Post had won in the National Reporting category, but the first time in 24 years that a Pulitzer had been awarded for covering a presidential campaign.

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Is trust-based journalism the future? Jay Rosen thinks so.

Jay Rosen announced last week that he would be taking a role with The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch news project that its founders hope to launch next year. Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and one of our most perceptive media observers, explained in an essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab that he was intrigued because The Correspondent has been “optimized for trust.” Among other things, the site will be free of advertising, and reporters will be required to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers.

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