Good luck separating ‘journalism’ and ‘opinion’ in the age of Trump

The always-worth-reading El Pariser has a piece out today at NiemanLab headlined “Trump’s USA Today op-ed demonstrates why it’s time to unbundle news and opinion content“.

He suggests:

If we believe there’s something special about the processes and norms that create journalism (and I do), publishers should draw a brighter line around it — a line that both people and algorithms can understand.

But I disagree. You simply can’t draw a clear line between “journalism” and “opinion”. Especially in this day and age, you need a heavy does of context and analysis to make sense of what’s being said and done. “Straight” stenography, in contrast, is the opposite of journalism.

So do you put anything that smacks of editorializing over on the opinion side? (And yes, I speak from personal experience).

That would be too extreme.

At the same time, with reporters and editors feeling constrained (still!) by both-siderism – which is triangulation, not truth-telling – much of the best analysis is being done on the virtual-space-formerly-known-as-the-opinion-pages. (Also some of the worst.)

The problem yesterday was that USA Today’s editorial editors ran a Trump op-ed full of lies – and then had the gall to say they fact-checked it!

Ha! As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote just hours after it was published, almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.

USA Today’s opinion editors shouldn’t have run the Trump op-ed – certainly without annotation or explanation. But I’m not surprised they did.

Would others have? The Washington Post published this baseless drivel last year, in which Trump wrote that in his first 100 days he had successfully “transferred power from Washington, D.C., and give[n] it back to the people.” He even lashed out at press, writing: “The same establishment media that concealed these problems — and profited from them — is obviously not going to tell this story.”

In fact, the Post not long ago rolled out a series of “categories” to label articles and tweets, evidently intending to make the kind of distinctions Pariser is talking about. For Post-obsessives like myself, they have been hilariously applied.

For instance: Philip Bump’s reporting is called “analysis”. Joe Davidson’s reporting is called “perspective“. Josh Rogin’s reporting is called “opinion” – and so is torture-apologist Marc Thiessen’s compulsive lunatic trolling. His first paragraph today: “Donald Trump may be remembered as the most honest president in modern American history.” The Post should add a category for “trolling”.

So I don’t think segregating content can work. The best thing I can come up with is, as usual, a variation on radical transparency.

Opinion pages should just be more honest about how their “fact-checking” is more like “spell-checking”. They should just put some sort of boilerplate caveat on stuff they realize contains unverifiable bullshit. (And maybe explain why they ran it anyway.)

It would be nice if opinion pages did genuinely fact-check. But at this point, that would be effectively muting a major political party and its partisans.

Trump mocked Saudis for cheap laughs last week; has warm words after apparent murder of Washington Post columnist

As of just a few days ago, Donald Trump was repeatedly mocking and threatening the leader of Saudi Arabia in order to get a few more hoots from supporters at his campaign rallies.

“We protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich?” he baited the crowd in Mississippi on October 2. “And I love the King, King Salman. But I said ‘King – we’re protecting you – you might not be there for two weeks without us – you have to pay for your military.’ ”

In West Virginia on September 29, he told the crowd: “The stupid days are over, folks, I’m sorry. I mean, I love Saudi Arabia. They’re great. King Salman, I talked to him this morning, a long talk. And I said to him, ‘King, you’ve got trillions of dollars, without us, who knows what going to happen?'”

It was nonsense. Trump may have been thinking about the $230 million for stabilization projects in Syria that his administration cut in August, and that he tweeted about at the time.

But in reality, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg a few days after Trump’s assertions: “We believe that all the armaments we have from the United States of America are paid for.”

In fact, Saudi spending on U.S. weapons — many billion dollars a year — is so significant that the defense industry here is highly dependent on it

“Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the only country in the Middle East that doesn’t pay for U.S. weapons is Israel,” Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me in an interview.

So why would Trump say such a thing? “Essentially the man is entirely about demagoguery in the interest of feeding his own ego,” Freeman said. “He’s boasting about how tough he is.”

But now, public and congressional fury is growing quickly in response to what appears to have been the cold-blooded murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi critic who was a U.S. permanent resident and Washington Post columnist.

And Trump is suddenly stressing how much the Saudis pay, not how little.

He has essentially ruled out blocking future arms sales to the country as punishment. “I think that would be hurting us,” Trump said in a Fox News interview Wednesday night. “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before.”

He continued: “A part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems and everybody’s wanting them. And frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.” He drifted off: “I mean, you’re affecting us and, you know, they’re always quick to jump that way.”

Thursday afternoon, he told journalists in the Oval Office that his relations with the Saudi royal family is “excellent.”

“I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all-time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money,” he said.

“What good does that do us?”

For now, the $110 billion figure, which is what Trump announced after a lavish welcome in Riyadh last year, stands only as a record exaggeration.

Actual Saudi spending  on U.S. weapons was $65 billion between 2009 and 2016.

USA Today publishes Trump team blueprint to spread fear and lies before midterms

It’s easy to tell what’s on Donald Trump’s mind: Just listen to his stream-of-consciousness word rambles at political rallies, or read his tweets.

To know what’s on his staff’s mind, you need to read his scripted speeches or the occasional op-ed written under his byline.

The ostensibly Trump op-ed in USA Today this morning plainly lays out his top advisers’ plans to fight Democrats in the November election by spreading what they know to be lies – confident in the knowledge that the elite political media has neither the power nor the will to prevent them from spreading.

The USA Today editors do a fine job of summarizing the op-ed’s contra-factual argument in their subhead, which ran under the headline “Democrats ‘Medicare for All’ plan will demolish promises to seniors”. The subhead:

The Democrats want to outlaw private health care plans, taking away freedom to choose plans while letting anyone cross our border.  We must win this.

There’s a simple test anyone can use to judge the integrity of a politician or a party: Are they accurately portraying the positions of their opponents — or at least coming close?

If they aren’t, then their arguments should be discounted accordingly.

By that standard, Trump’s arguments about protecting Medicare are obviously insincere and not remotely credible.

And the USA Today op-ed — which I would wager was mostly written by Trump’s most trusted and most toxic domestic adviser, Stephen Miller — is valuable only in providing a blueprint for the lies that Republican leaders intends to spread in the next four weeks.

Keep in mind that USA Today ran it with no caveats, and a promo on its website’s front page.

The op-ed is basically a collection of scare tactics. For instance, on Medicare:

The Democrats’ plan means that after a life of hard work and sacrifice, seniors would no longer be able to depend on the benefits they were promised.

The rationale is that Medicare for All

would inevitably lead to the massive rationing of health care. Doctors and hospitals would be put out of business. Seniors would lose access to their favorite doctors. There would be long wait lines for appointments and procedures. Previously covered care would effectively be denied.

That latter excerpt is actually a legitimate, if deeply flawed argument against Medicare for All. But it’s not supported by the facts in evidence – or the op-ed’s hyperlinks.

Indeed, I wonder who provided the hyperlinks for the op-ed. Consider this passage

I also made a solemn promise to our great seniors to protect Medicare. That is why I am fighting so hard against the Democrats’ plan that would eviscerate Medicare.

The article you get by clicking on eviscerate Medicare is a New York Times analysis of Medicare for All. Its conclusion is that the 56 million people currently with Medicare would have more generous coverage.”

Did White House staffers provide that hyperlink? I guess they could be that clueless. Or did someone at USA Today? And were they trying to send some sort of muffled, tiny message about the op-ed’s credibility?

The reddest meat, as it were, is in the op-ed’s second section,  under the subhead “Democrats want open-borders socialism”:

The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela.

This is a something Trump has touched on before, if not quite so directly. I wrote yesterday about his attempt to turn around critics’ arguments about the threat he poses to the rule of law. Part of that entails accusing the Democrats of wanting to turn the U.S. into Venezuela – one of the very few places where Trump takes issue with a one-party state violating the rights of its citizens.

The op-ed’s argument about Democrats wanting “open borders”, meanwhile, is rank hyperbole. It affirms that

some Democrats’ absolute commitment to end enforcement of our immigration laws by abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The “Abolish ICE” movement, when not intentionally distorted, is to rebuild a border-enforcement system that doesn’t depend on a brutal deportation squads that grab children from their mothers.

By the way, for people who’ve been paying attention to Medicare for a long time, there’s a huge irony in the first paragraph of the op-ed:

Throughout the year, we have seen Democrats across the country uniting around a new legislative proposal that would end Medicare as we know it and take away benefits that seniors have paid for their entire lives.

It’s not just that expanding Medicare for All, with its philosophy and benefits recognizable and intact, doesn’t end Medicare. It’s that phrase: “end Medicare as we know it.”

Think back to when Republicans bulldozed a plan through the House in 2011 that would have privatized the existing single-payer Medicare system, replacing it with an underfunded voucher scheme. The Republicans still called it Medicare, but it wasn’t.

Back then, not terribly unlike now, leaders of the nascent fact-checking movement recognized that the massive repository of Republican falsehoods threatened to send their fact-checking out of balance unless they made tremendous efforts to call attention to Democratic falsehoods, sometimes resorting to picayune hair-splitting. That’s how a Democratic ad proclaiming that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” was named Politifact’s “lie of the year” in 2011.

Mine was among the many howls of agony over this at the time, because the statement was actually true. Politifact’s argument came down to the Democratic ad’s omission of the words “as we know it” after “Medicare.”

Now this op-ed, asserting that Democrats want to end Medicare — when they do not, remotely — comes amid a torrent of lies spewing at faster-than-Internet speeds from Trump, his White House, and his loyal party leadership.

But that doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t push back.

And today, I’m happy to say, the Associated Press shows the way.

The AP’s Zeke Miller, in a story headlined “Trump trashes Democrats’ Medicare for All plan in op-ed,” points out – in the second paragraph, no less – that the op-ed “omit[s] any mention of improved benefits for seniors that Democrats promise.”

And an AP fact-check by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar concludes that “Trump distorts Democrats’ health care ideas”.

That’s a good start.

But should USA Today have published the op-ed the way it did? News organizations typically jump to publish op-eds from major political leaders. But at the same time, editorial-page editors have a responsibility not to peddle lies and propaganda. Would an “opposing view” have been appropriate, or sufficient? I’d like to hear people’s thoughts.

Trump’s new Big Lie is that it’s the Democrats who threaten the rule of law

Trump in Topeka.
Trump in Topeka.

There is no critique — no matter how particular to him — that Donald Trump will not fire back against his opponents with shameless gusto.

Perhaps you remember the moment during the third and final presidential debate in October 2016, when Hilary Clinton charged that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would rather have Trump win because “he’d rather have a puppet as president.”

“No puppet! No puppet!” Trump insisted, talking over Clinton. “You’re the puppet! No, you’re the puppet!”

But even by that standard, Trump’s latest deflection is a doozy.

“The Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern,” he told hooting supporters at a political rally in Topeka on Saturday. “Republicans believe in the rule of law. Not the rule of the mob.”

So let’s take a step back.

The “rule of law” is generally accepted to mean that no one is above the law, and that the law protects all people equally.

Trump’s undermining of the rule of law is an almost daily phenomenon, from his tweets threatening to shut down the criminal investigation into his own campaign, to his using the Trump hotel in Washington as a tip jar, to abusing his pardon power, to his praise of despots, to actually being an unindicted coconspirator in the violation of campaign finance law.

A particularly compelling anecdote emerged just last week in an excerpt from Michael Lewis’s new book, The Fifth Risk. (More on that soon.)

It turns out that during the campaign, Trump was livid to find out that his transition team, which he considered unnecessary in the first place, was raising several million dollars to pay staff — money that might otherwise have gone to his campaign coffers.

When aides tried to explain that staffing a transition team is required by federal law, Lewis writes that Trump responded: “Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money.”

Trump’s rise and rule are clear indications that a future in which the United States remains a stable democracy under the rule of law is no longer inevitable – a topic that has been the subject of several high-profile books including “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It,” by Yasha Mounck and “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

Long-established nonpartisan good-government groups like CREW and Common Cause have taken legal action against Trump for violating the Constitution’s Emolument clauses and campaign laws.

New groups including Protect Democracy and American Oversight have sprung up to defend against attacks of self-government and fight the culture of illegally profiting from public service that Trump has led and fostered.

This column exists because of my concerns about the growing power of the executive branch and Trump’s particular abuses of that power that go even beyond the legal and ethical strictures observed by his predecessors.

So for Trump to say Republicans believe in the rule of law – and to decry as a mob the people exercising their free expression rights  trying to defend it – is nonsensical, unless you see it as an attempt to coopt an adversarial message he fears..

And this was no slip of the tongue. Trump appeared to be reading that part off the TelePrompter, and his Twitter account called further attention to it later that night:

Along a similar vein, Trump has recently been warning that Democrats want to turn the United States into Venezuela. Venezuela, of course, is one of the few places where Trump takes issue with a one-party state violating the rights of its citizens.

“If Democrats get control, they will raise your taxes, flood your streets with criminal aliens, weaken our military, outlaw private health insurance, and replace freedom with socialism,” he said at a rally in Mississippi last week.

“In a short period of time — of course, I’ll be doing lots of vetoes, just so don’t worry too much — they will turn America into Venezuela.”

He continued this line of attack on Monday, telling reporters that “The main base of the Democrats have shifted so far left that we’ll end up being Venezuela. This country would end up being Venezuela.”

It doesn’t take an eminent psychiatrist to see that what Trump is doing is projecting. (Although I admit I am influenced by Justin Frank’s extraordinary book, “Trump on the Couch,” which explains that and so much more; stay tuned for my interview with Frank later this week.)

That’s why simply quoting what Trump says and maybe explaining it a bit further down in the story is not acceptable journalism any more.

The big story about Trump is not whatever he just said, it’s whatever his new Big Lie is. And his latest involves projecting his own party’s reality onto Democrats, calling them an angry mob threatening authoritarianism.

 

Possible ‘trainwreck’ ahead as Republican candidates wrestle with defending the worst of Trumpism

Trump embraces Minnessota Republican Senate candidate Karin Housley in Rochester on Oct. 4, 2018 (video screen capture)
Trump embraces Minnessota Republican Senate candidate Karin Housley in Rochester on Oct. 4, 2018.
Republican congressional candidates in the November election are unabashedly running on the Trump agenda and under the Trump banner. But by and large, they have not had to say how strongly they support his more outrageous conduct – the stuff that’s really aberrational.

Most of them, however, will have no choice but to address Trump’s most extreme behavior in the next few weeks as they finally come face to face with their Democratic opponents in debates.

It will be interesting to see how far they go. There are so many areas worth probing, but I’ll focus on two in particular: Trump’s disrespect for the rule of law, and his style of governing.

Trump has routinely applied political pressure to the Justice Department, including calling for the criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton. He has attacked judges whose rulings he disliked.

Most importantly: He shows every sign of replacing top Justice Department officials after the midterms, thereby ending or curtailing the criminal investigation into his own campaign’s possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election.

How much of that will Republican candidates associate themselves with?

And how much if any distance will they put between themselves and Trump’s statements about minorities and white supremacists and his treatment of women? Will they join him in declaring that all but one or two of the nation’s major media outlets are “fake news”? Will they back away from his mockery of Christine Blasey Ford?

Trump himself has certainly endorsed the notion that the midterms are a referendum on him. “Get out and vote. I want you to vote pretend I’m on the ballot,” he said in Mississippi on Tuesday, a variation on a common theme.

And the candidates, almost without exception, are declaring their loyalty.

“They’re all using him in their ads,” Jennifer Duffy, who follows congressional campaigns for the Cook Poltical Report, told me. “And they are using a lot of his rhetoric. There’s lots of talk about the wall, about chain migration. They talk a lot about sanctuary cities.”

But there haven’t been a lot of debates yet — where they will be on the spot to respond to tough questions about other aspects of Trumpism while trying to win over moderate Republicans and independents.

“I think efforts to defend a lot of the President’s actions may lead to some spectacular falls,” Duffy said.

Duffy said she expects candidates in the reddest states to defend Trump unconditionally. That, she said, “could be a trainwreck.”

Politico today has an article about how Florida Republican congressional candidate Michael Waltz turned down Trump’s offer to hold a rally in his district. An “insider” told Politico the concern was that “you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth.”

But the campaign insisted Waltz is still running on the Trump agenda: “Michael Waltz proudly supports the many successes President Trump has achieved on behalf of the American people.”

What happens, though, when candidates like Waltz have to face questions from debate moderators or Democratic opponents that force them to clarify how far their support goes? Will they distance themselves or go all in?

For instance:

  • Do they think it is OK for Trump to tell the Justice Department how to conduct criminal investigations?
  • Do they support Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey,
  • Do they agree with Trump that he faces a cabal of hostile “deep state” bureaucrats and a hostile FBI?
  • Do they agree that Robert Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt”?
  • Do they share Trump’s view that the #MeToo movement is “very dangerous” and unfairly threatens  powerful men?
  • Do they defend tweets like this one?
  • What about the fact that he lies all the time? There are so many examples, but: Say, that he brags about new steel plants when there aren’t any, or that he denies that thousands of people were killed in Puerto Rico on account of Hurricane Maria?
  • Was meeting alone with Vladimir Putin a good idea?
  • How do you defend Trump’s personnel choices? Was Mike Flynn “the best people”? Was Scott Pruitt draining the swamp?
  • Did the Russians interfere in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf? Isn’t that alarming?
  • Is the president a role model for our nation’s children?

These are not questions that the Republican candidates answer unprompted. But the answers will tell us a lot about whether the post-Trump Republican Party stands for Trump’s most norm-shattering conduct. And it will also clarify the significance of the election as a referendum.

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The *crickets* problem with writing about post-Trump reforms

Cricket singing.

Two major reports from civil society groups came out Tuesday outlining bold proposals for legislation to fix some of the dangerous loopholes that Donald Trump has opened, widened or simply exposed in our increasingly fragile-feeling constitutional democracy.

But you probably didn’t hear a peep about them.

I wrote about them here and here. I think it’s fascinating stuff! But like everyone else trying to draw people’s attention to something beyond the moment’s news, I wasn’t particularly successful.

The weight and velocity of news dropping on our heads every day makes it hard to look past it. Journalists don’t have the energy to put the latest load in context, much less tease out the ramifications and consider possible solutions. For consumers of news, the outrage is so thick it sometimes threatens to turn into nihilism.

The co-chairs of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy – former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara and Republican former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman –  launched their report with an op-ed in USA Today.

They recognized the challenge:

We’re not asking Americans to look past the daily developments of our politics. But rather than careening from crisis to crisis, we want to do the hard work of repairing our democracy and restoring public faith in government. As a country, we’ve weathered crises before. But we’ve also risen to the occasion to fix what’s broken. Let’s do it again.

So it’s a long game.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Public Citizen issued Tuesday’s other report, on “Trump-Proofing the Presidency”.

“We really haven’t expected a ton of response because we understand that there are a lot of different people focused on a lot of different things right now,” Jennifer Ahearn, CREW’s policy director, told me on Wednesday.

But Ahearn said her community is operating on a long time horizon. “Major legislation takes a long time,” she said.

A lot may change after the November mid-term elections, if Democrats win either or both houses of Congress, giving them muscular oversight tools if not the ability to get legislation passed.

The goal now, Ahearn said, is “to set a baseline for what a real response to these problems would be.”

And hey, at least you’re reading this.

“I do think that there’s an appetite among some folks,” Ahearn said. “They’re tired of the horror and they want to actually think about how to fix these problems.”

In the coming days and weeks I’ll be writing more about these two sets of suggestions — and others. I’ll be interviewing people to get their reactions and thoughts. And I’ll be trying to encourage a conversation. So stay tuned.

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