Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Blogging vs. TV and newspaper commentary

April 10, 2018

An old friend of mine made this comment on a previous blog post—

I have a question for regular readers of this blog. Do you have any theories about why we can’t get commentary like Phil’s on TV, or in the New York Times–let alone on Fox News? Respectfully, Steve Badrich, San Antonio, Texas.

To begin with, my friend gives me much too much credit.  Unlike when I worked on a newspaper, I do very little original reporting.

Most of what I write is based on facts and ideas I find on other, better blogs and on-line news sites. The best thing about many of my posts is my links to those blogs and news sites.  Go far enough upstream from those blogs and news sites, and you find the ultimate sources are in traditional journalism.

Blogging is very different from reporting, or even writing a newspaper column or appearing as a guest commentator on TV, which I have done.  As a reporter, I was accountable to an editor for being fair and accurate.   Editors were accountable to a publisher for producing a product that would appeal to readers and bring in advertising.

This discipline improved the quality of what I wrote, but it also made me think twice about going against conventional opinion.  When I wrote something, for example, that reflected favorable on Eastman Kodak Co., my community’s largest employer, it was accepted without question.  When I wrote something that Kodak executives didn’t like, I was usually called in to justify myself.

I usually was able to justify myself.  I was fortunate to have editors that stood behind reporters when they were right.  But the further my writing went deviated accepted opinion or the wishes of the powers that be (which was never very far), the higher the bar for justifying myself.  I was surrounded not by a barrier, but by a hill whose steepness increased the further I went.

As a blogger, I am not accountable to anyone except myself.   I don’t have to meet anybody’s standards of fairness and accuracy except my own.  No gatekeeper asks me to justify my conclusion, whether orthodox or unorthodox.

I am as free as anybody gets to be in 21st century America.  I am retired, and I’m not in the job market.  I have good medical insurance and a sufficient income for my needs and desires, which many people don’t.  I don’t belong to any organizations, associations or cliques that would kick me out because of my opinions.

If these things didn’t apply, I wouldn’t feel free to post under my own name, and I’d be more cautious about what I did say.

Since, in practice, I enjoy a greater amount of freedom of expression than many people do, I have a right and responsibility to exercise it.

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My life history as a story of race

March 29, 2018

My previous two posts were about my reactions to Debby Irving’s Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.  As I stop and think about it, I have been entwined with race and racism my whole life.

My parents

Some of my earliest memories of growing up in the little town of Williamsport, Md., are of my mother and father arguing about white guilt.  My mother would go on about how badly black people and native people were treated.  Finally my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Negro.”

My mother would resume talking about how Negroes were denied basic rights and forced to ride in the backs of buses.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “I’d never let anybody treat me that way.”

Or my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Indian.”  My mother would resume talking about how whites stole the Indians’ lands and forced them to live on reservations.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “If the Indians had what it takes, we would be the ones living on reservations.”

My father was not, in fact, unfriendly or unjust to black people or anyone else.   He was friendly and at ease talking to anyone, whether an African-American janitor or the Governor of Maryland.   He was not impressed by wealth or social status, and he did not look down on anyone.

I think this ability stemmed from a genuine liking for people, and interest in them, but also from a self-confidence based on knowledge of his own strength and competence.  He would not let anybody take advantage of him.

My mother was kind to everyone, but she had genteel standards of behavior, which included good table manners, correct grammar, no cursing and swearing, no dirty jokes and no racist epithets or remarks.

My mother was the daughter of a lawyer who’d fallen on hard times.  My father was the son of a poor farmer whose life consisted of unending physical labor.  My maternal grandfather died in bed.  My father’s father was found dead in his barn one day where he’d gone to do the morning milking.

Both my mother and my father were respected members of their community.  My mother was a school teacher all her working life, and lived to see the children and grandchildren of her first pupils pulling strings to get their own children into Mrs. Ebersole’s class.

My father was part of the first generation of his family to attend college, which is where he met my mother.  He had a varied career; at the time I was born, he was a clerk for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).    He ended up as a civil servant in the Maryland State Employment Service, which administered unemployment compensation benefits and a job referral service for the unemployed.

When he reached retirement age, he chose not to retire, which was contrary to the plans of his superiors.  They sent someone—who happened to be a black man—to take over the duties of his office, while my father sat on the sidelines.  He understood what was going on, and decided to retire after all.

He had no resentment of the black man who replaced him.  On the contrary, he praised him.  He said the man had the quality he most respected—”quiet competence”

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Boyhood

Both my parents taught me to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, unless and until I had a good reason not to.  My mother in addition taught me to think of racism as both unjust and low-class.

In those days Maryland schools were still segregated.  I had a black playmate named Jim Tyler when I was a small boy.  He was a member of the Tim Mix Ralston Straightshooters club I organized, which was based on living up to the ideals of Tom Mix, the hero of a radio serial, and eating Shredded Ralston breakfast cereal.   As I grew older, I lost touch with him and never thought about him.

I was bookish, precocious and opinionated, and included to argue with my elders about matters of race and other things, mostly to their amusement.

“Be honest, Phil,” they would say.  “Would you be willing to have one of them marry your sister?”

I would answer that I didn’t have a sister, but if I did have a sister, in the highly unlikely event that she wanted to marry a black man, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but, if she really loved him, I could accept it.

The attitude of my elders was that I would give up my foolish theories when I became a mature adult.  Neither of these things happened.

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College Days

At the age of 15, I won a Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.   This scholarship enabled boys to go from the 10th grade of high school directly to college, on the theory that they could complete their college educations before becoming eligible to go fight in the Korean Conflict.   I learned later I got the scholarship based on a form of affirmative action.

Prof. Herbert Howe, who administered the scholarship program for the University of Wisconsin, initially decided to award the scholarship based on test scores and the letter of application.

What happened was that all the applicants with the highest test scores were from two high schools in New York City, the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.   In the interests of diversity, Prof. Howe decided to restrict students of those high schools to 50 percent of the scholarships, and to set aside 10 percent for Wisconsin residents.

He told me later that my own test scores were little better than average.   He decided to take a chance on me because I was an interesting outlier—someone who chose to be tested in history and English rather than the sciences, and someone from a rural high school in the South (he thought of Maryland as the South) rather than a big city.

My college grades were all right, but below the Ford average.  My subsequent career was all right, but not as distinguished as my college classmates.  All the arguments against affirmative action applied to me.

I don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about having taken advantage of an opportunity that was offered to me.  I don’t criticize anybody for taking advantage of an opportunity that is offered to them.

During the time I was in the program, I knew of no black Ford scholar.  Maybe there was one later or at a different college.  I never thought about this at the time.

My student days were the first I ever had a serious conversation with a black person or a Jewish person.   One of my favorite professors was a Dr. Cornelius A. Golightly, a teacher of philosophy.  He was a brilliant man, and kind to me.  I heard that he didn’t get tenure, supposedly because he was a pragmatist, and the philosophy department only wanted logical positivists.

As a student, I wrote for the college newspaper, The Daily Cardinal.  I was a champion of academic freedom, an opponent of Senator Joe McCarthy and an opponent of fraternity charters that excluded black members.

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Military Service

After graduating from college in 1956, I volunteered for military service, including two years active duty.  This was in peacetime, and military service can be a good experience in peacetime.

The U.S. armed forces were probably the most diverse and multicultural institution in American society, and still are.   I met people from even more varied backgrounds than I did in college.  I encountered more black people then in positions of authority than I did for a long time afterward.

Now is as good a place as any to say that I never had any problem taking orders from black people, I never had any fear of black people and I never, so far as I know, was ever harmed by a black person.

∞∞∞

Journalism in Hagerstown, Md.

I worked for The Daily Mail in Hagerstown, Md., from 1958 through 1974.   I made a special effort to write about racial discrimination, civil rights and Hagerstown’s tiny black community, although I was often blundering and naive in the way I went about this.

My friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, married Georgiana Bell, who was black, and I attended their wedding.  The Chief of Police had a detective park in a police cruiser outside and take note of every wedding guest.  That night he phoned my publisher to let him know that I was the kind of person who’d attend an interracial wedding.  I never thought my job was in danger, but this shows the predominant attitude in those days.

The story I’m proudest of having written was about a black riot when Gov. George Wallace of Alabama came to town during his 1972 presidential campaign.   The Wallace staff had a policy had a policy of having campaign appearances on National Guard armories, and the armory in Hagerstown was on the outskirts of the black community.

In the middle of Wallace’s speech, a group of young black men started to interrupt Wallace’s speech by chanting.  Their leader was named Ken Mason.  He happened to be the son of Bill Mason, the chief sheriff’s deputy, whose appointment was resented by white racist rank-and-file deputies.     A group of deputies grabbed Mason and started beating him, while a city detective blocked me from getting close enough to see what was going on.

I was later able to quote eyewitnesses, including the chair of the local Wallace for President committee, as to what happened.  He was willing to speak to me because I had always reported on the Wallace people fairly.

Anyhow, I ran over to the nearby county jail, which was besieged by angry black people.  They went on a rampage all that night, but only within their own neighborhood, which, however, was on a main through street.  Bill Mason pleaded in vain to do the obvious thing, which was to set up roadblocks to divert traffic.

None of the heavily armed deputies or police ventured into the riot area.  Only I walked through it—admittedly walking very quickly.

After the bars closed, many drove their cars through the area.  One driver—a recently-discharged combat veteran of Vietnam—was killed by a brick thrown through his windshield.  Ken Mason was later tried and convicted on charges of inciting a riot, and given a suspended sentence.

I was able to write a fair and accurate article as a result of having previously written fair and accurate articles about all concerned.  I am proud that people who wouldn’t talk to each other would talk to me.

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Trump didn’t plan on being elected President

January 5, 2018

Neither Donald Trump nor his key supporters expected him to be elected President, according to Michael Wolff, author of a new book about the Trump administration.   They expected to lose and were unprepared to actually govern.  This would explain a lot.

Wolff was granted free access to the Trump White House—a fact that in itself shows the administration was in disarray—and has published a book, Fire and Fury: Inside Trump’s White House, which came out today.  The following is from an excerpt published in the current issue of New York magazine—

The candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behavior or their worldview one whit.  Almost everybody on the Trump team, in fact, came with the kind of messy conflicts bound to bite a president once he was in office.  Michael Flynn, the retired general who served as Trump’s opening act at campaign rallies, had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech.  “Well, it would only be a problem if we won,” ­Flynn assured them.

Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his own business deals and real-estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns.  Why should he?  Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary.  His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities.  Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement.  Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star.  Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching.  Losing would work out for everybody.  Losing was winning.

I suspected something like that myself.  It explained Trump’s reluctance to spend his own money on his campaign.  It explained why Trump was willing to say whatever crossed his mind, regardless of the repercussions—which was part of his appeal.

Trump’s facial expression during the Inauguration was stormy and angry.  His face was not the face of someone enjoying a triumph.  But, according to Wolff, all this quickly changed.  Trump now is fully confident of his ability to be an effective President.

Another striking thing about Wolff’s account is that none of the top people in the Trump administration, except for his sons, daughter and son-in-law, manifest any personal loyalty to Trump himself.  This does not bode well for Trump in dealing with the Mueller investigation.

Wolff’s report should be read with skepticism.  His article is full of direct quotations of conversations he was not in a position to hear.  It is a mixture of first-hand, second-hand and possibly third- and fourth-hand information.

The reader must judge how much is known fact and how much is gossip.  For me, Wolff’s account is plausible and, as I said, it would explain a lot.

LINKS

Trump Didn’t Want to Be President by Michael Wolff for New York magazine.

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Am I being unpatriotic when I link to RT News?

November 30, 2017

RT News and Sputnik International are news services funded by the Russian government.   They are said to be waging “information warfare” against the United States.

RT America and Sputnik International have been ordered to register as foreign agents, the only foreign news services that have been ordered to do so.  What this means is that they will be required to disclose their sources of funds and other details of their operations.

The FBI is investigating Sputnik.  Google has changed its algorithm to “de-rank” RT and Sputnik in Google searches.  Twitter has banned advertising by RT and Google.

None of these things prevent RT or Sputnik from reporting their version of the news or making their reports available to Americans.   We’re not like the old Soviet Union, where you could be arrested for listening to the Voice of America.

And, in one respect, the United States is more liberal than the Russian federation.  Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America lost their Russian broadcast licenses in 2012 and 2014, but Sputnik still has a radio station in Washington, D.C.

The anti-Russia campaign is intended to brand Americans as unpatriotic if they work for RT or Sputnik, appear on their programs or even watch their programs.

I’ve linked to RT News videos in previous posts.  What does that make me?  Am I unpatriotic?

I think an American who listens to or watches RT or Sputnik is like a Russian who watches or listens to the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.   The U.S. government has an ulterior motive in funding these two news services.   At the same time, they provide Russians with information and ideas they wouldn’t get from their domestic broadcasters.

Established U.S. broadcasters have a limited range of viewpoints they regard as acceptable.   I never noticed this until my own thinking moved outside the range of the acceptable.   So if there’s something on RT News I think is interesting or worthwhile, even though it might not be acceptable to PBS or CNN, I’ll link to it..    That’s my right as a free American.

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John Pilger on Clinton and Assange

November 7, 2017

Hillary Clinton and Julian Assange (Reuters)

The Australian journalist John Pilger wrote a good article about Hillary Clinton’s book tour of Australia and her vicious attacks on Julian Assange.

Clinton has made herself rich and powerful by serving the interests of militarists and plutocrats.  Assange has effectively lost his freedom, and may well end his life in prison, for revealing the secrets of militarists and plutocrats.

Yet Clinton has been able to persuade journalists that she is a victim and that Assange is her persecutor.

I find it amazing that Assange has never yet been shown to have published any material that turned out to be bogus.   That is more than the New York Times and Washington Post can claim.

LINK

Clinton, Assange and the War on Truth by John Pilger for teleSUR.  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

A new look at the secret hoards of the ultra-rich

November 6, 2017

Remember the Panama Papers?  That was a massive leak of documents from a Panama-based law firm called Mossack Fonsecka, revealing how the world’s richest and most powerful people hid billions of collars in investments from tax collectors and the public.

Now there is another big leak—called the Paradise Papers—from century-old Bermuda-based law firm called Appleby and its Singapore affiliate.

Like the Panama Papers, the anonymous leaker sent documents to a German newspaper called Süeddeutsche Zeitung, which teamed up with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and some of the world’s other top newspapers, and spent a year going through 13.4 million files.

Some of the highlights of what was found:

  • Queen Elizabeth II’s investment manager, the Duchy of Lancaster, invested millions of pounds in a Cayman Islands fund, whose investments included Bright House, a rent-to-own UK furniture company that charged interest rates of up to 99%
  • Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who divested himself of ownership in 80 companies to avoid conflicts of interest, kept interests in nine offshore companies.  Four of them invested in a shipping company called Navigator Holdings, which did business with a Russian energy and chemical company called Sibur, whose key owners include Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law and a Russian oligarch under U.S. sanctions.
  • Stephen Bronfman, a key fund-raiser for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, teamed up with key Liberal Party figures to evade Canadian, U.S. and Isreali taxes.

Major companies shown to do business through tax havens are Apple, Nike, Uber Barclay’s Bank, Goldman Sachs, BNP Paribas and Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trader.

None of this is, in itself, illegal.  But hidden offshore investments provide a way for criminals to launder money and for individuals, companies and governments to evade economic sanctions by the U.S. and other governments.

As several people have remarked, the worst scandals are not how the law is broken, but what can be done that is perfectly legal.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think any of this is evidence that the Russian government or Russian interests manipulated the 2016 elections in favor of Donald Trump,

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Jeff Spevak’s farewell

September 25, 2017

Last week the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, which is my local newspaper and former employer, laid off Jeff Spevak, its arts and entertainment reporter.  Here’s what he had to say about it.

MY OBITUARY MOMENT

by Jeff Spevak

Last week I had caught my bus for the usual ride downtown and found a seat next to another fellow. He looked at me.  “Hey,” he said. “You’re the guy. The newspaper guy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

A few days ago I was watching Paterson, a beautifully subtle film about a bus driver who writes poetry. After a conversation about William Carlos Williams, a Japanese tourist who was sharing a park bench with the bus-driving poet asked him if he wrote poetry.

“No,” the bus driver said.

Twelve hours later, the connection between these two scenes, one from a movie, one from my life, fell into place.  In Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s dog had shredded his notebook filled with poems.  How can you be a poet when you have no poems?  So no, he answered honestly, he was not a poet.

It was the same thing when I got called into the Democrat and Chronicle Human Resources office on Tuesday.  “We’re eliminating your position,” the editor said.

So now my answer to the guy on the bus will be, “No, I’m not the newspaper guy.”

Two characters, a New Jersey bus driver and a newspaper arts and entertainment writer, who no longer knew who they were.

It’s a dangerous thing to tie your identity to your job. I’m not sure where the tipping point came, but somewhere during my 27 years at the Democrat and Chronicle I could no longer tell the difference between my personal life and my professional life.  Maybe it was the day at the jazz festival when a guy asked me for my autograph.  I looked at him and said, “Are you joking?”

The editor was wrong when she told me they were eliminating my position.  Someone else will have to write the long Sunday feature stories about the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player whose wife didn’t get proper treatment for breast cancer and died, because the cult-like church they belonged to believed God heals all.  Someone else will have to interview Brian Wilson, carefully navigating his drug-ravaged brain to discover the genius within.  Another writer will have to find the words to describe the giant spermatozoa floating over the heads of 10,000 people last weekend at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.

The newspaper wasn’t eliminating my position. It was eliminating me. That’s just the language corporations use so they don’t have to deal with the humanity in the situation.

I believe I said, “I’ll go get my shit and leave.”  My language might not have been quite that coarse, I can’t remember now.  But that’s what I was thinking.

As my fellow newsroom employees gathered around my desk for the uncomfortable condolences and hugs, I couldn’t find the words to explain how I felt.  Which was… I felt like nothing. I’ve always taken my job so seriously.  Now that I didn’t have the job any longer, it was like I didn’t care.  I hear 27 years of being rode hard and put away wet does that to a horse.

If they live that long.

I wonder what parts of me have gone missing, and which ones will return. A few months ago, I was told I couldn’t use social media for political comment, and I was not allowed to appear at public rallies; not as a speaker or anything official, I just couldn’t be there to see for myself what was going on.

As a condition of employment, I had to be someone other than who I am.

Big companies guard their images closely, and I can’t blame them for that. There are millions in CEO salaries to protect, shareholders must be rewarded for their investment. Yet news organizations use social media for political comment, and they are often observed at public rallies, if only to report what’s going on.

They aggressively protect their First Amendment right to do so. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”

More so, I think.

My final act before walking out the offices of the Democrat and Chronicle for the last time was to go on Facebook.  I typed:

Myself and two of my newsroom colleagues just got laid off at the Democrat and Chronicle. After 27 years here, I feel… relief.

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Declaration of Independence is still revolutionary

July 7, 2017

National Public Radio has a long-standing custom of broadcasting the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July.

This year NPR sent out the Declaration of Independence on Twitter, and was accused of sending out radical propaganda.   They thought the Declaration referred to President Trump, not King George III.

It goes to show that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are like the Bible. More people say they believe in them than actually reading them.

I can remember newspapers years ago doing man-in-the-street interviews about excerpts from the Declaration or the Bill of Rights, and showing how many average Americans regarded their country’s founding ideals as dangerous and radical.

Actually, this country’s founding ideals are dangerous and radical, but in a good way.

LINK

Some Trump supporters thought NPR tweeted ‘propaganda’ | It was the Declaration of Independence by Amy B. Wang for The Washington Post.

Seymour Hersh reports from journalistic exile

June 29, 2017

Seymour Hersh, once regarded as one of the top U.S. investigative reporters, has in recent years been unable to publish his articles in the United States—only in the London Review of Books and other British publications.

But he couldn’t even get his most recent expose published even in the LRB.   The LRB commissioned, then decline to print his report on the truth behind the Assad regime’s alleged sarin attacks, and he had to turn to a German newspaper, Die Welt.

Long story short, here’s what Hersh claimed:

  • President Donald Trump was engaged by propaganda pictures allegedly showing that children were killed by a sarin attack by Syrian government forces, and disregarded intelligence reports that questioned the evidence that such an attack occurred.
  • He ordered a military attack on Syria in retaliation, but U.S. military officers, knowing that there was no good reason for the attack, conducted it in such a way that it would do minimum damage.

Note that Hersh does not claim to know what happened.  He is just saying that Trump’s claim action has no basis.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy

May 24, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, in her new book, The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic of Our Time, claimed that the election of Donald Trump reflects fundamental flaws in human nature and in the very ideas of democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.

Brooke Gladstone

To her credit, she doesn’t take her argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to empower gatekeepers to filter the news and opinions available so the rest of us aren’t exposed to anything the gatekeepers consider fake.

Many others, in fact, do go that far, so I will try to sum up her argument and then engage it.   Here’s her argument:

  • Truth is subjective Everybody lives in their own unique reality.   Since our ability to understand is limited, we make decisions based on stereotypes.   All human beings are emotionally committed to stereotypes and experimental psychology shows that our brains react negatively to whatever challenges our stereotype.
  • Knowledge of facts is not enough Any given set of facts is subject to multiple interpretations.  We the people filter facts according to own various assumptions and biases.
  • Appealing lies beat inconvenient truths John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill claimed defended free speech by claiming that truth would defeat falsehood in a free and open encounter.  This is bogus.   We the people don’t have access to full information about important public issues, nor the time or ability to evaluate it if we did.
  • Democracies foster demagoguesSince we the people cannot make rational decisions, we tend to prefer demagogues who offer us appealing fantasies rather than intellectuals who tell us inconvenient truths.

Here’s my answer.

The expression that “truth is subjective” or “we all live in different realities” is highly pernicious.

It’s true that we all have our own unique experience of reality.  As Gladstone notes, humans can’t imagine what it is like to experience the world as a bat or a bloodhound does.  But a human, a bat and a bloodhound all live in the same actual world.  We are all burned by fire and drown in water.   If our perceived reality is wrong, the real reality will sooner or later catch up with us.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with reality

May 23, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, a broadcaster and media critic, has written a provocative 87-page book about Donald Trump and his challenge to the concept of objective truth.

Trump has given us a constant stream of assertions—Obama was born in Kenya, Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, millions voted illegally in the 2016 elections–without facts to back them up.

That is, as she wrote, a challenge to the basis premise of democracy, which is that we the people have the ability to make good choices as to who will represent us.

But what if we don’t have a good basis for making a choice?  What if the very possibility of making a rational fact-based choice is called in question?

We normally assume that both sides have some basis for what they say and that our job is to choose the one who makes the best case.   But Donald Trump just says things without bothering to make an argument?

How can the casual newspaper reader, TV watcher and social media user evaluate this?

∞∞∞

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt made a distinction between liars (people who knowingly make false statements for a reason) and bullshitters (people who don’t know or care whether what they say is true or not).

It’s not just Trump.   The whole flood of charges regarding Trump and Russia seems very—for want of a better word—Trumpian.  Every day there’s something new and nothing is ever proved.

The distinction between lies and bullshit applies here.  I don’t think anybody is knowingly making false statements about Trump and friends.  I think many of them just don’t care one way or the other.

On the other hand, the consequences for revealing unwelcome truths can be severe—Chelsea Manning seven years in prison, Edward Snowden a fugitive from U.S. law, Julian Assange confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

I’ve had people tell me that Assange should not have published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton unless he had information equally unfavorable Donald Trump to publish.

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Julian Assange: enemy of the state

April 26, 2017

Power corrupts, the saying goes, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  If a government has the power to commit crimes in secret, and to punish people for revealing its crimes, what limit is there on its absolute power.

That is why Julian Assange, the founder and leader of Wikileaks, is a hero.  He has sacrificed his freedom and risked his life to make known crimes and abuses by the U.S. and other governments.

Here’s what he said about his aims back in 2006—

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie.  This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are non-linearly hit relative to open, just systems.  Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on.

Source: IQ.ORG

Of course this is inherently dangerous.  Making powerful immoral people paranoid about having their crimes revealed will reduce the effectiveness of those powerful immoral people, either by damaging their reputations or making them afraid to communicate with each other or both.   But it’s a given that if you keep it up, these powerful people will use their power against you.

∞∞∞

CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a recent speech that Assange’s Wikileaks should be suppressed because it is a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”  In other words, Wikileaks gathers information that governments don’t want it to know, and publishes it—just like any other muckraking news organization.

The difference is that Wikileaks, like other publishers, gathers intelligence on behalf of the public and not a foreign government.   If you say the distinction doesn’t matter, then freedom of the press does not include the right to tell the truth; it means nothing except the right to express mere opinion.

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Fake news and critical thinking

April 8, 2017

Little of what I write about on this blog is based on first-hand knowledge.  It is what the philosopher Bertrand Russell called knowledge by description rather than knowledge by acquaintance.

I write about foreign countries I’ve never visited, whose language I do not speak and whose people I’ve never spoken to.   I write about politicians I’ve never interviewed.

I know from 40 years experience on newspapers that it is hard to be well-informed on a topic, even if you have time to study the subject, and in fact are being paid to be well-informed.

It is even, as now, I depend on second-hand information.  It is easy to be misled and hard to sift the real from the fake.  Here are filters I use to separate news from fake news.

  1.  Who says so?  How do they know?  Is a source of information given for every assertion?  Is the source of the information a person in a position to know?  Is the person trustworthy?  Is the source of the information anonymous?  If so, do they have a good reason for being anonymous?
  2.   Click on the links.  If the source of information is a link on the Internet, follow links as far as you can to the original source, and see whether it supports what is asserted.
  3.   Does the claim make sense?  Does the news item make sense as something somebody could do?  Does it make sense in terms of something somebody would do?  Is it consistent with what else you know?  Is it consistent with itself.
  4.   Does the writer engage in mind-reading?  Other people’s’ motives are unknowable.  You can know what somebody does.  You can’t really know why they do it, and the “why”
  5.   Compare and contrast diverse sources.  If you have time.
  6.   Carry on imaginary conversations in your head.   If you are a progressive, imagine a conservative making their best arguments (or vice versa).   How would you answer?  Could you answer?
  7.   Distrust emotion, but not too much.  Emotion can blind you to facts and logic, but the fact that somebody feels strongly about something doesn’t mean they’re wrong.   There’s nothing wrong with expressing anger, admiration, pity, gratitude or any other normal human emotion; what you should ask is whether the emotion is appropriate to the actual facts.
  8.   Use fact checkers, but skeptically.   Snopes.com and Factcheck.org are useful, but make up your own mind.
  9.   Arithmetic can be your friend.  If the news item is based on statistics, go to the original source, if you can.  Do the calculations yourself.  Always distrust any claim that is based on percentage differences or changes unless the underlying number also is given.  Don’t jump to conclusions about the significance of any number unless there is another number you can meaningfully compare it with.
  10.   Three things to watch out for.  Old news packaged to look like it’s current.  “Sponsored content” packaged to look like journalism.  Satire that isn’t labeled as satire.
  11.   Suspend judgment if you’re not sure.  Better to admit you don’t know something than to think you do when you don’t.
  12.   Admit mistakes, at least to yourself.  It just means you are wiser today than you were yesterday.

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Getting the facts right about Trump

March 15, 2017

During the 40 years I worked on newspapers, I sometimes got the story wrong through finding facts, or seeming facts, that proved what I thought all along—and then looking no further.  The same thing has happened with posts on this blog.

I think a lot of the reporting on Donald Trump is bad for precisely this reason.

President Trump himself sometimes says things that are obviously not true, and then refuses to back down.  I get that.

But if you’re going to accuse someone of dealing in “fake news” and “alternative facts,” people (other than those who already agree with you) are not going to believe you unless you are careful about the facts yourself.

The writers I trust the most are the ones who report facts that are contrary to their points of view—what lawyers call “admissions against interest.”   The links below are by writers who dislike Donald Trump, but dislike inaccuracy more.

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That leaked CIA report on the Russian menace

December 16, 2016

CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou made a point about the New York Times and Washington Post reports on a secret CIA report on Russian hacking of Democratic campaign e-mails.

Oh, and by the way – the release of the CIA report, or information from the CIA report, is an act of espionage as defined by the Obama Justice Department: “Providing national security information to any person not entitled to receive it.”  I wonder who’s going to be charged with that leak.  Yeah, right.

Source: CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou

I’ve often thought that the purpose of most government classification of information is to be able to leak secrets to favored people.

John Pilger interviews Julian Assange

November 6, 2016

Julian Assange, in addition to his great service in bringing secret facts to light, is an interesting thinker.  The video shows fellow Australian John Pilger, a noted investigative journalist, interviewing Assange on the coming U.S. election and his current status.

Here are some highlights of the interview:

Julian Assange: If you look at the history of the FBI, it has become effectively America’s political police.  The FBI demonstrated this by taking down the former head of the CIA [General David Petraeus] over classified information given to his mistress.  Almost no-one is untouchable.

The FBI is always trying to demonstrate that no-one can resist it.  But Hillary Clinton very conspicuously resisted the FBI’s investigation, so there’s anger within the FBI because it made the FBI look weak.

We’ve published about 33,000 of Clinton’s emails when she was Secretary of State.  [snip]

Then there are the Podesta emails we’ve been publishing.  [John] Podesta is Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign manager, so there’s a thread that runs through all these emails; there are quite a lot of pay-for-play, as they call it, giving access in exchange for money to states, individuals and corporations.

∞∞∞

Julian Assange: There’s an early 2014 email from Hillary Clinton, not so long after she left the State Department, to her campaign manager John Podesta that states ISIL is funded by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar

Now this is the most significant email in the whole collection, and perhaps because Saudi and Qatari money is spread all over the Clinton Foundation.   Even the U.S. government agrees that some Saudi figures have been supporting ISIL, or ISIS.   But the dodge has always been that, well it’s just some rogue Princes, using their cut of the oil money to do whatever they like, but actually the government disapproves.

But that email says that no, it is the governments of Saudi and Qatar that have been funding ISIS.

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Fear and loathing of Bernie Sanders

October 14, 2016

Swat Team: The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders and real reform by Thomas Frank for Harper’s magazine.  What the Washington Post’s coverage of the Sanders candidacy reveals about the liberal establishment mentality and the future of American journalism.

Spies, Wikileaks and the DNC hacks.

August 1, 2016

I haven’t seen anything in the news accounts of the Democratic National Committee e-mails that is either new or shocking.

We the public knew before the DNC hacks that the committee members and staff were supporters of Hillary Clinton.  That’s what smart and successful politicians do—put their supporters in positions of influence.

The e-mails reveal how much the DNC people disliked Sanders and favored Clinton, but I haven’t seen anything that shows the e-mails showed they actually did—as distinguished from talking about—anything unethical.

What wrongdoing I do know about comes from publicly available information, not e-mail hacks.  The Hillary Victory Fund, for example, raised money ostensibly for state Democratic Party organizations, but then funneled the money back to Clinton.  That’s dishonest and probably illegal, but those facts had already been revealed.

As to the source of the information, intelligence agencies of various governments have a long history of revealing information that is embarrassing to their adversaries.

What’s new about the publishing of confidential Democratic National Committee e-mails is that it was done through Wikileaks, which provides a platform by which whistle-blowers and hackers of any affiliation can reveal secret documents without being traced.  is not affiliated with any government and for that very reason provides a perfect cover.  This is ideal cover for secret intelligence agencies.

Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, says his only responsibility is to verify the authenticity of the information, not to judge the motives of those providing it.   The problem is that the CIA, FSB and their counterparts in other countries are probably much more expert in faking the source of information than Assange and his friends are in detecting forgeries.

There’s a moral here.  The moral is that secret information is not necessarily more significant than public information that has been overlooked.

LINKS

On the Need for Official Attribution of Russia’s DNC Hack by Matt Tait for the Brookinsgs Institution’s Lawfare blog.

Yet More Thoughts on the DNC Hack: Attribution and Precedent by Jack Goldsmith for Lawfare.

Memo to Donald Trump: Don’t tell jokes

July 28, 2016

Donald Trump was asked yesterday about the hack into the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails.

220px-Donald_Trump_August_19,_2015_(cropped)The Republican nominee said he did not know if Russia was behind that attack, but that he would like to see the Kremlin turn its attention to the 30,000 messages Mrs Clinton deleted prior to the FBI investigation into her email practices.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” he said.

Mr Trump, who was giving a press conference in Florida, said it gave him “no pause” to essentially sanction Russian cyber hacking on an American official.

“Hey you know what gives me more pause? That a person in our government – Crooked Hillary Clinton – that a person in our government would delete or get rid of 30,000 emails,” he said.

“Now, if Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean to be honest with you I’d love to see them.”

Source: The Telegraph (UK)

I thought that was funny, and I thought his joke had a point.  But almost every comment I’ve come across this morning treats Trump’s comment as a serious and shocking proposal.

Trump should have learned by this time something I learned very early as a newspaper reporter.  When you engage in humor or irony, vast numbers of people will not recognize it as such unless it is labeled as humor or irony.

The bogus issue of plagiarism

July 20, 2016

plagiarismmelaniamichelleimrs.phpI think Donald Trump is disqualified to be President because of his cruel rhetoric, his manifest ignorance and his unethical business record.

I wish people who think as I do would focus on what’s true and what matters rather than seizing on every little thing that comes up.

The whole plagiarism uproar, for example.

Melania Trump, in her speech to the Republican National Convention, praised people who work hard and keep their word.  Michelle Obama did the same thing in similar words at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.   I doubt if she was the first person ever to express these commonplace truths.

I remember the late Robert F. Kennedy saying that some people see things as they are, and ask why, but he dreamed things that ever were, and asked, why not?  As I recall, nobody ever blamed him for failing to attribute these words to George Bernard Shaw.

And the late Nelson Rockefeller was fond of the phrase, the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God.  As I recall, nobody ever blamed him for not attributing this phrase to the great Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker.  It’s one thing to plagiarize a whole article or speech; it’s another to use a phrase somebody else has used before.

The reason that it’s wrong to use anything and everything that comes to hand to attack your opponent is that you make it hard for members of the public to separate signal from noise.

Attacking Donald Trump unfairly is wrong in itself and also actually helps him, because it diverts attention from what he really is doing and saying wrong.

LINK

Red Star Over Trump by Peter Lee for China Matters.  Another bogus issue.

How Seymour Hersh uncovers the inside story

May 18, 2016

Seymour Hersh’s writings always remind me of how little I know about what is really going on.

I am better informed as a result of reading his work and watching this video, and you may be, as well.

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If the New York Times wrote Jesus’s obituary…

March 27, 2016

Sam Roberts, an obituary writer for the New York Times, was asked to imagine what Jesus’s obituary would have been like.

jesus-christ-obit-satire 2Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean carpenter turned itinerant minister whose appeals to piety and whose repute as a healer had galvanized a growing contingent of believers, died on Friday after being crucified that morning just outside Jerusalem, only days after his followers had welcomed him triumphantly to the city as “the anointed one” and “the Son of David.”  He was about 33.

For a man who had lived the first three decades of his life in virtual obscurity, he attracted a remarkable following in only a few years.  His reputation reflected a persuasive coupling of message, personal magnetism, and avowed miracles.  But it also resonated in the current moment of spiritual and economic discontent and popular resentment of authority and privilege, whether wielded by foreigners from Rome or by the Jewish priests in Jerusalem and their confederates.

[snip]

After running afoul of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem for blasphemy and his arrest on Thursday, Jesus was sentenced to death by Governor Pontius Pilate. (The Jewish authorities lacked jurisdiction to impose capital punishment.)  The charge, in effect, was treason, for claiming to be King of the Jews or “the anointed one” (Messiah in Hebrew and Aramaic; Christos in Greek).  After he was declared dead on Friday night, he was buried nearby in a cave.

On Sunday, his disciples reported that the body was missing.

∞∞∞

Click on What Would Jesus’s New York Times Obituary Look Like? to read the whole thing in Vanity Fair.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

If newspapers die, will we lose anything?

March 23, 2016

My friend and former editor Anne Tanner worries about the future of journalism, and of newspapers in particular, as I do.  She e-mailed me a link to an article in Britain’s Prospect Magazine about the future of newspapers, from which I pull the excerpt below.

So far, the online news world has had a slightly shabby reputation.  On the one hand there are endless feeds simply repeating or re-tweeting the same basic information; the spread of lazy list-based journalism; and the parasite websites, picking the dirty bits out of the teeth of the major news corporations.  On the other hand there is the reactive underworld of almost incoherent anger, the moon-faced, flabby-fingered trolls who reduce all public argument to puerile sexual abuse.

newspaper-2Yet as more and more of us turn to our laptops, the news is getting better.  When I am researching I like to “read sideways”—that is, find a story or a footnote, trace it down to its origin, and keep going from there.  This sideways reading, made possible by hyperlinks, is the essence of the best of what is on the web.

On websites such as Buzzfeed, there is delight as well as disappointment.  The disappointment is that although there are in-depth essays and some foreign coverage, it’s still a long way from the regular, reliable foreign news service that the average news junkie would expect from the average serious newspaper.  The delight is about the ingenuity and creativity of its staff—if you haven’t seen Kelly Oakes’s “If newspaper headlines were scientifically accurate” you are missing something special.

It’s not only possible to become a really well-informed and engaged person by reading the news—it’s getting easier all the time. But relying on a single, under-funded, pressurized editorial team and a dampish wodge of flattened spruce arriving on your doormat every day is no longer the best way to go about it.  You just have to be more proactive and spend a bit more time to get what you need

Source: Prospect Magazine

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Why do reporters accept being penned up?

March 18, 2016
Reporters covering Hillary Clinton's participation in a Fourth of July parade in Gotham, New Hampshire

Reporters covering Hillary Clinton’s participation in a Fourth of July parade in Gotham, New Hampshire

For decades, reporters who travel with Presidential candidates have been denied the right of ordinary spectators to move about freely at campaign events.

The Secret Service and the candidates’ own security people deny them the right to mingle with crowds.  Instead they restrict them to observing campaign events from special roped-off or fenced-off areas.

Such restrictions apply only to members of the national press corps traveling with the President.  The local press is usually free to sit in the audience and take notes.

This has no logical relation to protecting the candidates from threats, except to the degree a candidate regards free reporting is a threat.  Any restrictions that were necessary to the personal safety of a candidate would logically apply to everyone, not just members of the national press corps.

What is the legal basis for this?  Why don’t newspapers and broadcasters protest on Constitutional grounds?

The basis for it is that broadcast and print journalists depend on the candidates to provide them with transportation and the communications facilities they need to do their jobs.  Without that help, they or their employers would have to buy their own airline tickets, find places to recharge their computers and cameras and set up their own communications for writings and pictures.

More importantly, the candidates control access.  Reporters need to be able to talk to the candidates and the candidates’ staffs, and they won’t get this access unless the candidates see some benefit in giving it.  If you’re a reporter, you don’t just need access.  You need as much access as your main competitor.

So candidates have many means of punishing reporters they consider hostile or even out of line.   Some keep the press on a tight rein, some on a loose rein, but the reins are always there.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

December 17, 2015

pollsandersclinton12346429_10205252351251720_455515267058200796_nHat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.