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“Enough With The ‘Optics’ And The ‘Narrative'”: There’s No Reason Journalists Should Have Any Shortage Of Questions To Ask

When an important news story breaks, Americans turn to journalists for answers. Answers to questions like: Does this story “play into a narrative”? And what are the “optics” of the story? Because that’s what really matters, right?

Or so you might have thought if you had been reading or watching the news for the past few days. Journalists and pundits were all in a tizzy because when Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch crossed paths recently at an Arizona airport tarmac, Clinton jumped on Lynch’s plane to chat with her for a half hour, about such shocking topics as Clinton’s grandchildren and their mutual friend Janet Reno.

The ensuing controversy looks like a prime example of the “Clinton Rules,” under which the media treat even the most ludicrous allegations against Bill or Hillary Clinton as reasonable and worthy of extended examination, assuming all the while that their actions can be motivated only by the most sinister of intentions. And if the underlying substance of a story is indeed ludicrous—like the idea that Clinton hopped over to talk to Lynch because he wanted to urge her to put the kibosh on any possible indictment of his wife (in a semi-public setting with a bunch of other people standing around), and not because he’s Bill Clinton and he loves chatting with important people—then you can just fall back on judging the “optics” and noting sagely that the story “plays into a narrative.” Whatever you do, don’t mention that the “narrative” is one you yourself are in the process of creating and sustaining, and when you say that the “optics” are bad, what you’re really saying is, “It was a mistake because here I am on TV saying it was a mistake.”

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: The more people you see in the media talking about “narratives” and “optics,” the less substantively meaningful the controversy they’re talking about actually is. So: Is there a reason to condemn Clinton or Lynch for their tarmac chitchat that doesn’t rely on the idea that one or the other should have known how it would look? The closest thing you can argue is that if there’s an active FBI investigation of a matter that involves the wife of a former president, that former president should have no contact, private or public, with the attorney general. Even if that’s an informal rule more intended to safeguard against the appearance of impropriety than actual impropriety, it’s still a perfectly good idea. On the other hand, the fact that their talk took place with other people around makes any kind of undue influence vanishingly unlikely; you’d have far more reason to be concerned about something like a private phone call.

Here’s what was going to happen if Clinton and Lynch had never spoken: The FBI would complete its investigation, the career prosecutors at the Justice Department would or wouldn’t recommend an indictment, and Lynch, as the department’s chief, would or wouldn’t accept that recommendation. I doubt any serious person thinks the outcome of that process would be affected by the conversation Clinton and Lynch had. Yes, there are Republicans, including Donald Trump, who will say otherwise. But there are also lots of Republicans who think that the Clintons killed Vince Foster and that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; that doesn’t mean you have to treat those ideas as anything other than the lunacy they are. But in the end, Lynch recused herself from the final decision on an indictment anyway. Why? Optics, of course.

Although this kind of thing happens with particular frequency to Bill and Hillary Clinton, that isn’t to say that that faux controversies don’t get whipped up about Republicans, too. For instance, over the weekend, Donald Trump retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton superimposed over a pile of money, with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” contained within a Star of David. Anthony Smith of mic.com tracked down the source of the image: a particularly rancid online forum of racists and white supremacists. I won’t link to it, but when I visited the forum Sunday afternoon, the top post was a story about Elie Wiesel under the headline, “DING DONG THE KIKE IS DEAD,” followed by lengthy discussions on the criminality of non-white people, the dangers of race-mixing, and the superiority of the white race. And it isn’t like this was an isolated incident. As David Weigel of The Washington Post noted, “For at least the fifth time, Trump’s Twitter account had shared a meme from the racist ‘alt-right’ and offered no explanation why.”

When the tweet started getting attention, the Trump campaign deleted it and replaced it with an altered image, this time with the Star of David replaced with a circle. My guess is that Trump got the image from one of his followers and retweeted it without giving it much thought. So is it a big deal, one worthy of multiple days of coverage? In and of itself, no. It doesn’t prove anything new about Trump. But it’s another demonstration of something that is troubling: Trump’s words and policy goals have garnered enthusiastic support from racists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis.

Jews are pretty far down on the list of groups Donald Trump is trying to get voters to hate and fear, so to be honest, I’m not much more concerned about his tweet than I am about Bill Clinton telling Loretta Lynch how cute his grandkids are. In both cases, the last question we should care about is what the optics or the narrative are. Either Hillary Clinton did or didn’t do something wrong by using private email while at the State Department (she did), and either it will or won’t be determined to be a crime (it almost certainly won’t). In Trump’s case, it isn’t whether voters will react negatively to his extended game of Twitter footsie with white supremacists (much as one hopes they would). There’s something real and meaningful underneath the tweets: the fact that Trump is running the most nakedly racist presidential campaign, in both rhetoric and substance, since George Wallace in 1968, or maybe Strom Thurmond in 1948.

I have no idea what lies within Trump’s heart, and there’s no way to know for sure. But when members of the KKK are endorsing you, neo-Nazis are praising you, and every steroid-addled racist frat boy rage-monster is totally pumped about your campaign, there’s something much more important than the details of your retweeting habits at work. There’s no reason journalists should have any shortage of questions about that to discuss.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, July 3, 2016

July 7, 2016 Posted by | Bill and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Journalists, Loretta Lynch | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Trump Lies The Way Other People Breathe”: The Challenges In Covering Trump’s Relentless Assault On The Truth

Donald Trump must be the biggest liar in the history of American politics, and that’s saying something.

Trump lies the way other people breathe. We’re used to politicians who stretch the truth, who waffle or dissemble, who emphasize some facts while omitting others. But I can’t think of any other political figure who so brazenly tells lie after lie, spraying audiences with such a fusillade of untruths that it is almost impossible to keep track. Perhaps he hopes the media and the nation will become numb to his constant lying. We must not.

Trump lies when citing specifics. He claimed that a “tremendous flow of Syrian refugees” has been entering the country; the total between 2012 and 2015 was around 2,000, barely a trickle. He claimed that “we have no idea” who those refugees are; they undergo up to two years of careful vetting before being admitted.

Trump lies when speaking in generalities. He claimed that President Obama has “damaged our security by restraining our intelligence-gathering and failing to support law enforcement.” Obama actually expanded domestic intelligence operations and dialed them back only because of bipartisan pressure after the Edward Snowden revelations.

Trump lies by sweeping calumny. “For some reason, the Muslim community does not report people like this,” he said of Omar Mateen, the shooter in the Orlando massacre. But according to law enforcement officials, including FBI Director James B. Comey, numerous potential plots have been foiled precisely because concerned Muslims reported seeing signs of self-radicalization.

Trump lies by smarmy insinuation. “We’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” he said of Obama. “There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.” He also said of Obama: “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other and either one is unacceptable.”

You read that right. The presumptive Republican nominee implies that the president of the United States is somehow disloyal. There is no other way to read “he gets it better than anybody understands.”

Trump claims that Hillary Clinton, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, “wants to take away Americans’ guns and then admit the very people who want to slaughter us.” Clinton has made clear that she doesn’t want to take anyone’s guns away, nor does she want to eliminate the Second Amendment, as Trump also claims. And the idea that Clinton actually wants to admit would-be slaughterers is grotesque.

I write not to defend Obama or Clinton, who can speak for themselves — and have done so. My aim is to defend the truth.

Political discourse can be civil or rowdy, gracious or mean. But to have any meaning, it has to be grounded in fact. Trump presents a novel challenge for both the media and the voting public. There is no playbook for evaluating a candidate who so constantly says things that objectively are not true.

All of the above examples come from just five days’ worth of Trump’s lies, from Sunday to Thursday of this week. By the time you read this, surely there will have been more.

How are we in the media supposed to cover such a man? The traditional approach, which seeks fairness through nonjudgmental balance, seems inadequate. It does not seem fair to write “Trump claimed the sky is maroon while Clinton claimed it is blue” without noting that the sky is, in fact, blue. It does not seem fair to even present this as a “question” worthy of debate, as if honest people could disagree. One assertion is objectively false and one objectively true.

It goes against all journalistic instinct to write in a news article, as The Post did Monday, that Trump’s national security address was “a speech laden with falsehoods and exaggeration.” But I don’t think we’re doing our job if we simply report assertions of fact without evaluating whether they are factual.

Trump’s lies also present a challenge for voters. The normal assumption is that politicians will bend the truth to fit their ideology — not that they will invent fake “truth” out of whole cloth. Trump is not just an unorthodox candidate. He is an inveterate liar — maybe pathological, maybe purposeful. He doesn’t distort facts, he makes them up.

Trump has a right to his anger, his xenophobia and his bigotry. He also has a right to lie — but we all have a duty to call him on it.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 16, 2016

June 21, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Journalists, Voters | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Presidential Candidate Who Is Mentally Unhinged”: What’s Going On In The Republican Party Right Now Is Shocking

Would it surprise you to hear that Donald Trump said something shocking yesterday? Probably not. But here’s the latest. On a conference call with supporters, someone asked the presumptive Republican nominee about a memo issued by his campaign staff asking surrogates to stop talking about the Trump University lawsuit. Here was his response:

“Take that order and throw it the hell out,” Trump said…

“Are there any other stupid letters that were sent to you folks?” Trump said. “That’s one of the reasons I want to have this call, because you guys are getting sometimes stupid information from people that aren’t so smart.”…

A clearly irritated Trump told his supporters to attack journalists who ask questions about the lawsuit and his comments about the judge.

“The people asking the questions—those are the racists,” Trump said. “I would go at ’em.”

It couldn’t be any clearer that Republicans are about to nominate a presidential candidate who is mentally unhinged. He blasts his own campaign staff (meager as it is) as stupid and suggests that reporters who questions his racist statements are – by definition – racist.

Anyone who has been paying attention has known this about Donald Trump for a long time. And so the more interesting question is about how Republican leaders are reacting. We saw last week how Paul Ryan donned the cloak of denial by claiming that Trump’s racism came out of left field. The ever-crass Mitch McConnell summed it up with: “I think the party of Lincoln wants to win the White House.” Perhaps the most unhinged response to an unhinged candidate came from Mike Huckabee. In reference to the Republican establishment’s concerns about Trump, he said this:

“And they’re getting what they justly deserve, they’re getting spanked,” he continued. “And they need to be happy they’re only getting spanked and not executed, because there is seething rage out in the country for those who have fought to help some of these guys get elected, and they get there and they surrender to Obama and people are sick of it. And I think that’s why we’ve seen the spirit of this election, and frankly Donald Trump gives me great comfort. I tell people, ‘I don’t have any hesitation going out there and genuinely supporting Donald Trump.’”

In a time when Republicans weren’t so busy defending a candidate like Trump, suggesting that their party’s leadership should be grateful for getting spanked rather than executed would qualify as a completely outrageous statement. But such are the days of Republicans in the era of Donald Trump.

Beyond that, we are actually witnessing things like Senate Republicans having to reassure our global allies that – if elected – Trump wouldn’t actually do what he’s said he would do, and other leaders attempting to assure voters in this country that constitutional limits (including the possibility of impeachment) would halt his authoritarian tendencies.

I say all of this because it is important that we retain our shock at these events. It is bad enough that in about a month the Republicans are set to formally nominate Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. But it is even more dangerous if we begin to normalize this as political discourse. Explaining away racism as acceptable in an attempt to win, talk of executing politicians, and authoritarian tendencies are simply unacceptable in a democratic republic. So let’s be honest…that is exactly what is happening in the Republican Party right now.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 7, 2016

June 7, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Journalists, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fundamental Values And Norms”: The Media Have Reached A Turning Point In Covering Donald Trump. He May Not Survive It

The news media have come in for a lot of criticism in the way they’ve reported this election, which makes it exactly like every other election. But something may have changed just in the last few days. I have no idea how meaningful it will turn out to be or how long it will last.

But it’s possible that when we look back over the sweep of this most unusual campaign, we’ll mark this week as a significant turning point: the time when journalists finally figured out how to cover Donald Trump.

They didn’t do it by coming up with some new model of coverage, or putting aside what they were taught in journalism school. They’re doing it by rediscovering the fundamental values and norms that are supposed to guide their profession. (And for the record, even though I’m part of “the media” I’m speaking in the third person here because I’m an opinion writer, and this is about the reporters whose job it is to objectively relay the events of the day).

If this evolution in coverage takes hold, we can trace it to the combined effect of a few events and developments happening in a short amount of time. The first was Trump’s press conference on Tuesday, the ostensible purpose of which was to answer questions about a fundraiser he held in January to raise money for veterans’ groups. In the course of the press conference, Trump was at his petulant, abusive worst, attacking reporters in general and those in the room. “The political press is among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever met,” he said, saying to one journalist who had asked a perfectly reasonable question, “You’re a sleaze.” These kinds of criticisms are not new — anyone who has reported a Trump rally can tell you how Trump always tosses some insults at the press, at which point his supporters turn around and hurl their own abuse at those covering the event — but Trump seemed particularly angry and unsettled.

To see how the press looked at that revealing event, it’s critical to understand what led to it. It happened because the Post’s David Fahrenthold and some other reporters did what journalists are supposed to do. They raised questions about Trump’s fundraiser, and when they didn’t get adequate answers, they investigated, gathered facts, and asked more questions.

It was excellent work — time-consuming, difficult, and ultimately paying dividends in public understanding. And Trump’s attack on them for doing their jobs the way those jobs are supposed to be done couldn’t have been better designed to get every other journalist to want to do the same. They’re no different than anyone else: When you make a direct attack on their professionalism, they’re likely to react by reaching back to their profession’s core values to demonstrate that they can live up to them. Trump may have wanted to intimidate them, but it’s likely to have the opposite effect.

The same day as the press conference, a trove of documents from Trump University was released as part of a class-action lawsuit accusing Trump of fraud. The documents revealed allegations as to just what a scam that enterprise was: high-pressure sales tactics, nothing resembling knowledge being imparted to the “students,” people in financial trouble preyed upon and told to max out their credit cards to pay for more seminars and courses. Some of Trump’s other schemes may have been comical, but as far as we know nobody was victimized too terribly by buying a Trump Steak or a bottle of Trump Vodka. Trump University is something entirely different, and it’s not over yet; questions are now being raised about an investigation the Texas Attorney General’s office undertook of Trump University, which concluded that it was cheating Texans out of large sums of money; the investigation was dropped by then-AG Greg Abbott, who later got $35,000 in contributions from Trump and is now the state’s governor.

Plenty of presidential candidates have had shady doings in their pasts, but can you think of anything that compares to Trump University? A party’s nominee allegedly running a con not just on unsuspecting victims, but on victims specifically chosen for their vulnerability and desperation? It’s no wonder that you can’t find any Republicans who’ll defend it, in a time when ordinarily you can get a partisan hack to justify almost anything their party’s leader is doing or has done.

Then you had Trump’s continued attacks on the judge presiding over that fraud case. It’s unusual enough for a presidential candidate to be publicly attacking a judge in a case he’s involved in, but what’s most appalling is the blatant bigotry at the basis of Trump’s criticisms. First Trump would simply say that in addition to being biased against him the judge is “Mexican” (which is false — the judge was born in Indiana). Now Trump says that because the judge is “of Mexican heritage” he should be removed from the case. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” he says. Given all the other demographic groups Trump has insulted and offended, the natural conclusion would seem to be that only white male judges are fit to preside over Trump’s many, many lawsuits.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, June 3, 2016

June 6, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Journalists, News Media | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Man With The World’s Greatest Memory”: Trump Used His Aliases For Much More — And Worse — Than Gossip

Donald Trump told a real whopper this week — and we’ve got fresh proof right here.

What we can show is that when Donald Trump made deceptive phone calls over decades — posing as a Trump Organization vice president named “John Miller” or “John Barron” — he was not always puffing up his reputation as a philandering ladies’ man. In his fictional identities, Trump could also be quite threatening, as revealed in the brief clip below from Trump: What’s The Deal?a documentary film that he successfully suppressed for 25 years with threats of litigation.

The story erupted Thursday when The Washington Post put online a recording of Trump posing as “John Miller,” in a 1991 interview with People magazine reporter Sue Carswell. The fictitious “Miller” described himself as a newly hired Trump Organization publicist for the company boss.

Carswell was reporting a story about Trump’s pending divorce from his first wife, Ivana, and whether he planned to marry his longtime mistress, Marla Maples. Their relationship was really hot news at the time, at least in the tabloid newspapers and the tabloid television shows that Trump follows closely whenever they mention him, his self-proclaimed sexual desirability, and the notion that the world’s most gorgeous women cannot resist him.

Even though “John Miller” told Carswell that he was brand new on the job he gave lengthy, detailed and nuanced observations on Trump’s emotional state, various women in his life and whether he was ready to commit to another marriage. “Miller” must have been a really fast study. No publicist I have known in the past 49 years would dare to mention such intimate details about a brand new boss, much less so with the bold authority displayed by “John Miller.”

The morning after the Post story was posted online Trump called the NBC Today show to deny posing as “Miller.” He insisted – emphatically, repeatedly and unequivocally –that his voice was not on the recording. He even offered a conspiracy theory, suggesting it was one of many Trump impersonators trying to harm his reputation.

Asked by host Savannah Guthrie about news reports galore in the early 1990s that Trump routinely planted stories with journalists who received calls from “John Miller” or “John Barron,” Trump replied:

“No, and it was not me on the phone – it was not me on the phone. And it doesn’t sound like me on the phone, I will tell you that, and it was not me on the phone.” It was him, of course.

But “John Barron” didn’t just puff Trump’s sexual boasting in the press. “Barron” was also menacing, as revealed in the following film clip about his abuse of Polish immigrant construction workers – and the attorney who tried to help them.

Trump: What’s The Deal recounts a wide variety of Trump lies, exaggerations, and manipulations, but the misconduct of greatest interest to voters may be his threatening litigation in a scheme to deny payment to about 200 illegal Polish immigrants tearing down the old Bonwit Teller building on Fifth Avenue (an act of architectural vandalism). Many of the men lacked hardhats or face masks, used sledge hammers rather than power tools, had to pull out live electric wires with their bare hands, in a building laced with asbestos — all in blatant violation of worker safety laws.

A lawyer trying to get the workers paid the meager $4 to $6 per hour that Trump owed them received a bullying telephone call from one “John Barron,” as recounted in the film:

Narrator: Chapter Six. [Voiceover various images of Trump Tower and Trump]

 Threaten the lawyer that the Polish illegals hired after your cheap contractor defaults on paying them. Make sure that the threats are untraceable, in case the guy isn’t scared off.

 Interview On Camera: John Szabo (lawyer for Polish workers):

 “Mr. Barron had told me in the one telephone conversation that I had with him, ‎that Donald Trump was upset because I was ruining his credit, reputation by filing the mechanics liens [legal action intended to enforce payment]. And Mr. Trump was thinking of filing a personal lawsuit against me for $100 million for defaming his, uh…reputation.”

 Narrator: It turned out that Mr. Barron was Donald Trump’s favorite alias.

 When this was revealed Trump said, “What of it? Ernest Hemingway used a pen name, didn’t he?”

You can now view the entire 80-minute documentary, which is a superb examination of Trump’s mendacity and manipulation of journalists and politicians. It’s available for $9.99 on iTunes. If any movie chain had the backbone to show the film each seat would cost at least that much. But for the price of one theater ticket and a few beers, you can have a party, inviting Trump fans and detractors to watch the film and discuss what it reveals.

As for how we know that Trump lied to Savannah Guthrie, that’s beyond dispute. He admitted under oath in the federal lawsuit on behalf of the Polish workers that he had used the name John Barron, which resulted in a spate of news stories. In the aftermath Trump continued his deception, but using the name “John Miller.”

Later he admitted that “Miller” was a phony name, too. He confessed the truth to People Magazine, two weeks after its initial story by Sue Carswell made fun of him for trying to pass himself off as “John Miller.”

Following a lengthy trial in federal court, the real Donald Trump was found to have engaged in a conspiracy to cheat the Polish workers. The judge who decided the case found Trump liable for pay and fringe benefits and also found that his testimony — that he was unaware of what was going on during the demolition phase on Trump Tower — was not credible. Not only was he photographed at the site, but his temporary office across Fifth Avenue had a picture window view so he could observe the whole process of tearing down Bonwit’s and putting up his eponymous tower.

Ultimately the case was settled with a sealed agreement that neither side could discuss. But the record shows that what Trump denied was not just a juvenile prank, but part of a complex and lenghty stealth campaign by Trump to sell and protect himself in ways he was unwilling to do honestly.

Whether it’s the story planted on the cover of the New York Post with Marla Maples supposedly saying sex with Trump was the best ever (a quote she later denied ever uttering), his claims of multi-billionaire net worth when he could not pay his bills, or any other tall tale that puffed up the Trump name — or his ongoing efforts to suppress any fact that might tarnish his image — we now possess an important insight into the Trump mentality.

The man who wants us to give him the nuclear launch codes behaves like a child when he is caught with his hand in the cookie jar, crumbs all over his face. He denies the undeniable. And like a four year-old toddler, he thinks Americans are so gullible that they will believe him.

When Trump shifts his story and says he forgot, as he probably will, remember this: Last fall, he bragged that he has “the world’s greatest memory.”

 

By: David Cay Johnston, The National Memo, May 14, 2016

May 15, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Journalists, Philandering | , , , , | Leave a comment

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