Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When Moderates Become Extremists

Josh Marshall has it about right in 'The Moderates' Tale (or the Play-Acting Before the Cave) predicting that despite protestations by so-called moderate Republican lawmakers to the contrary, when push comes to shove, they will vote with their majority - this time it's health care, as they always do. Which is something that the most conservative wing does not do - witness government shutdowns. And why should the conservatives give in, if the moderates will always cave?

As JM states, "It is not only that the ‘GOP moderates always cave.’ It is that we are asked to (and almost always do) indulge this fainting couch routine or a furious bout of chin stroking that comes as a prelude to the cave."

Josh Marshall's example is Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, but we have one of those "moderates' right here in New England -- Maine Senator Susan Collins.

Contrast this TPM view of moderates with the Boston Globe take: Susan Collins won't back down on health care.
Like hell she won't! McConnell left Susan Collins out of the health care bill working group for one good reason - her vote could be taken for granted.

If, in the end, the moderates simply cave, then the only difference between the moderates and the extremists is the window dressing.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Tugging at One Glove

Breaking News: New York Times budges on unfair "fair and balanced" reporting.

We have complained frequently in this space about the timidity of New York Times reporting in their straight news section when strictly factual reporting might come off as politically biased, at least to a biased observer:
The New York Times With Gloves On (includes relevant links to posts)
For Propaganda 101, We Need Journalism 2.0
To Boldly Go Where No Responsible Journalist Has Gone Before

So, the big news since 2001 that Fox News has infected American news with a propagandistic approach, aggressively distorting stories and manipulating context, while claiming to be "fair and balanced" has generally escaped the careful scrutiny of NYT reporters. That big story was left to the opinion writers.

That is, until now.

It started with the post-election stories on "fake news" which revealed the sources of these stories: 'Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory; 'This is all about Income'. For some reason, that news about fake news became newsworthy after the election, but not so much before the election.

Of course, the fake news story begs the question of the granddaddy of fake news, Rupert Murdoch.

And so the Times budged, big time, with "One Nation Under Fox: 18 Hours With a Station That Shapes America. Fox News is a singular force, crafting a searing narrative about what's happening in the world for millions of viewers, including President Trump."

That headline captures the heart of the problem. First, millions of citizens could be fooled by Fox News' narrative. After enough exposure to the 'searing narrative', many of those citizens came to favor a candidate who knew nothing about government or politics, other than that same searing narrative that he himself absorbed by watching Fox News.

But that was in the magazine section, which is devoted to features considered newsworthy. Not exactly straight news, but not quite the opinion pages either.

Maybe the need to cover the Ailes and O'Reilly scandals helped with perspective on Fox.

The latest graphic provides a perfect example of the crucial link that ties the fake news story to the Fox News saga: "How Russian Propaganda Spread From a Parody Website to Fox News."

While Trump remains president, we can only hope that the courage of the NYT will only grow so that the fear of being labeled not fair and balanced, even unfairly,  will not prevent the NYT from reporting straight news, in context, with accuracy in support of a compelling true narrative because, if the NYT refrains from the narrative, people come up with their own appealing narrative, courtesy of Fox and Friends.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Art of the Lie

Josh Marshall presented an interesting timeline that merges the Comey dinner with Trump at the White House Jan. 27th into the Yates warning timeline:

But who asked for the dinner? From the transcript:

Trump, with his typical elusiveness, begins with the statement that Comey asked for the dinner, but when forced to confront whether or not that is true, Trump backpeddles to "a dinner was arranged". Typical Trump pivot to the passive voice.

Trump follow the typical patterns followed by inveterate liars and this is one example.

Start with a deliberate patent lie, but bury it in a statement about something else- why Trump made the statement in Comey's dismissal that Comey told him three times he is not under investigation. (Three times? There is that Trump pattern of repetition for emphasis. In Trump's case, lying all the time, how do you make yourself convincing? It happened not once, not twice, but three times ladies and gentlemen!".

Trump: Uh. I had a dinner with him. He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House.

Holt: He asked for the dinner?

Trump: A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said I'll you know consider and we'll see what happens. But we had a very nice dinner. And at the time he told me you are not under investigation.

Now the timeline and commentary from TPM:

January 20th: Trump inaugurated as the 45th President.

January 24th: Michael Flynn interviewed by the FBI at the White House, reportedly with no lawyer present.

January 25th: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates briefed by the FBI on interview with Michael Flynn.

January 26th: Yates visits the White House to give White House Counsel Donald McGahn a ‘heads up’ about concerns that Flynn had been compromised by his dealings with and deceptions about contacts with Russian government officials.

January 27th: Yates returns to the White House for further discussions with McGahn.

January 27th: Trump has private dinner with James Comey at the White House.

An additional detail is that various published reports, in addition to statements by Sean Spicer, say that McGann briefed Trump about the Yates’ discussion shortly after he met with her. That would appear to be on January 26th, though I’m not sure we know for a certainty that it was within hours of the first meeting rather than the second.

We need a lot more information. The most immediate question is: what had the President been told when he sat down with Comey for the loyalty dinner? Assuming Comey’s version is accurate and Trump requested the dinner, when did the request come? Did he contact Comey on the 26th or 27th or earlier?

It seems highly probable that Trump went into the dinner with Comey having just learned about the DOJ warnings about Flynn, indeed that the FBI was investigating Flynn. We can’t know for sure. But it seems possible that the dinner request came after Trump learned of these things and may indeed have been triggered by that new information.

There are many questions.

Following this TPM post, Comey associates came forward to say that the dinner was a "last minute thing." We can assume the dinner was all about the loyalty question. Some commentators have tried to distinguish between small lies and big lies recently because there are some big damaging lies and some lies seem small. But with this administration, we have the big liar at the top and the enablers within the White House advisers who join in by lying on behalf of the president and thus become a part of the conspiracy of lying. In this environment and with this crew holding power, there is no such thing as a small lie.

The press had a responsibility during the 2016 campaign to be much tougher on Trump's constant lying and fell short, partly due to  their understanding of "fair and balanced" reporting, but also because they had no rule book that covers this situation. They are great when bombs are falling all around them in a war zone, but when one side in a political campaign is dropping lies all around them, they don't know what to do.

Shouldn't a member of the White House pool of correspondents be willing to take the hit by asking Spicer or Huckabee Saunders the question: "The president has been caught in many lies that have been well documented. Does the president believe he can continue to lie constantly throughout his term? Or would that just fall flat?

Unfortunately, history tells a sad story. In 2008, AP reporter Glen Johnson challenged candidate Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in the middle of a lie. The contentious (though not all that heated) exchange was the big campaign news of the day. Columbia Journalism Review found that there was No Need to Apologize.

Unlike Trump, Romney mixed lies into his campaign narrative the way a mother mixes bitter medicine into apple sauce for her toddler. The apple sauce is awful, but it still tastes like apple sauce and you can legitimately call it apple sauce. In other words, Romney was not all about the lies the way Trump is all about the lies. But, as I argued throughout 2016, the Trump phenomenon is a logical result of Republican presidential campaign tactics and strategy.

In that 2008 exchange Romney is interrupted before he can finish his statement, but he is saying "I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign. I don’t have lobbyists that are tied to my- " when AP writer Glen Johnson interrupted. Romney pivots during the argument with Johnson to back away from the unfinished "I don't have lobbyists tied to my [campaign]" to the firmer, but still shaky ground "I don't have lobbyists running my campaign" for which he had at least plausible, though not necessarily credible argument.

The point is that Trump was able to emerge from the field of 17 Republicans because he was the most able and willing to take underhanded, but not unheard of Republican tactics to the extreme. Today our democracy suffers as a result.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Party of Trump 2017 Version

Krugman hits the mark with today's piece on Republican complicity in the destruction of democracy.

As he has noted in the past, the Republican party today holds power in part by making allies of the wealthy and mostly white working class citizens. The interests of the two groups diverge on major issues like health care, which has required a pattern of lies and obfuscation in Republican campaigns and government. Trump won in 2016 by carrying the obfuscation to an extreme combined with demonization of his opponent. We are witnessing the continued lying tactics to maintain power. Are you being "too pessimistic"? Sean Hannity's "Question of the Day" today is "Should the FBI reopen its investigation into Hillary Clinton's private server?". Doubling down just like it's 2016. After that seed is planted in Trump's head, with his continued consolidation of power through firings, threats, and intimidation, the only independent prosecutor or independent investigation we can expect is of Hillary Clinton. Because that is what they do.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The New York Times with Gloves On

The New York Times has a relatively new feature "Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn't Miss" introduced with this tag:
"The political news cycle is fast, and keeping up can be overwhelming. Trying to find differing perspectives worth your time is even harder. That’s why we have scoured the internet for political writing from the right and the left that you might not have seen."
NYT has sought more feedback on this feature than is normally their custom, so here goes.

Most of us do our own curating of articles from around the internet - much of that comes from Twitter suggestions from pundits we like.  This NYT feature could introduce us to new and valuable sources.  What could be wrong with that?

Well, nothing really, but I wonder about the perspective that prompted this.
Is this another case of both sidesism?

The logic of both sidesism:

1. Objective journalism is the goal.
2. To be objective, journalism must be fair and balanced.
3. Based on 1 and 2, every issue in politics has two equal and opposite sides deserving of equal amounts of respect. Similarly, the Democrat and the Republican in a campaign deserve equal treatment.
4. Balance in a political news article about a campaign requires that any story that suggests a negative conclusion about one candidate must cite similar observations that can be made about the opposing candidate.

Proper context gets lost in that environment. Underhanded political tactics and lies (what NYT sometimes called "Mr. Trump's mischief") are left to thrive.

The biggest problem with journalistic false balance/false equivalence is that Republican strategists are expert at using these journalistic shortcomings to their advantage.

The strategy of deny/deflect/distract/accuse was finally widely recognized following the 2016 election campaign because Trump was such an extreme case, but his methods were merely an extension of existing Republican strategy.

Virtually every statement by Trump and any House Republican about the health care law now needlessly repeats the refrain "Obamacare is such a disaster". Spicer's stand-in today, Huckabee Saunders did the same thing. This art of repetition of a campaign slogan as if it were an objective statement of fact,  left unchallenged - or even when challenged --- leaves lasting subliminal effects on the willing listener and distracts from the specific goals of the legislation. Republicans never have to talk about their goals for health care if they can just repeat that refrain.

One reason these lies and distractions are subjected to only minor challenge on-the-spot is the journalists clinging to their "objectivity" based on the "fair and balanced" approach.

So I am left wondering if the NYT curating articles for us comes from a perspective of - "We, the NYT, know that you are probably intensely partisan in these polarized times, but here are articles from "the other side" that may help you to learn about what others think and maybe change your mind on some issues. "

The Times feature includes articles from "the Center". Under this framework, "the Center" (not to be confused with "the Center" to which the Soviet spies on "The Americans" report) represents a position that is granted a leg up on credibility by not being either demonstrably left or right -- but that is not how truth and understanding work.

I have written previously on this, as in Normal Times and For Propaganda 101 we need Journalism 2.0. and "Waiter There's False Balance In My Soup" and "To Boldly Go Where No Journalist Has Gone Before".

My first reaction to this "Partisan Writing You Shouldn't Miss" is not that it is a bad thing. But it is an exercise in avoidance. Long ago, in the early 2000's Fox News showed itself to be a major force on the political scene. Posing as a straight news source, Fox functioned during the Bush administration as an instrument of the State and, during the Obama administration, as an opponent, in both cases, willing to promote a point of view with lies and distortions. That was a big news story with implications for American politics that the Times avoided to confront directly in context in order to bend over backward to sustain the appearance of objectivity. Gloves off would have been better.



Monday, May 1, 2017

More Chess than Checkers

Fact Checkers Can't Keep Up With Trump Lies recounts the Washington Post lie count for DJT since inauguration day. But as we said in In a Sane World, it's not enough to say"When the journalist conducting the interview fails to challenge him[Trump] on his lies, they subtly validate the claims Trump makes in their reporting." True, but the man is a proven pathological liar who has leveraged the power of lying to enormous political advantage. Fact checking is a necessary, but insufficient tool of journalism - insufficient because of the necessary delays required which permit the liar to control the narrative and move on to the next fabricated story - the next big lie.

Devotion to the truth means that every statement DJT makes that the journalist does not know immediately with certainty to be true is fair game to be challenged as questionable at best. No journalist can be expected to recognize every Trump lie immediately. Only then can the playing field in the battle between truth and lies be leveled. One method would be to do an immediate internet search during the interview. Sure that slows down the discussion, but is there an alternative?

If DJT (or Spicer, his enabler in WH briefings) objects, another approach is for the journalist to walk out of the room in disgust, rather than letting the lies just sit there.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Springtime for Spicer

Spicer's indefensible Hitler analogy -- to paraphrase "even Hitler was not this bad..." was the clear result of reverse engineering - "What can we possibly say to explain the complete US policy backflip on Syrian intervention that occurred within a matter of days?" Well, Assad has shown himself over a period of years to be an unbelievably horrible mass murderer, so what changed? Bombing a hospital? No, as horrible as it is, that is not new. Dropping chemical weapons - OK, let's go with that one, but, as awful at that is, how is that so much worse than the preceding horrors perpetrated by Assad?  We need to say this is much worse, so let's say Assad is even worse than Hitler. Sometimes, when Spicer bumbles in his responses, one gets the impression he is uncomfortable in this role - lying and exaggerating, but pretending he has no awareness of his own behavior.  The problem here is that we have a president who has relied exclusively on tactics to gain advantage throughout his working lifetime and who has no relevant knowledge and no interest in the requirements of his job and is determined to avoid hiring people who know what they are doing. We can expect continued reliance on tactics without a strategy.