“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
A very interesting argument has broken out over an unusual political question: If Donald Trump loses in November, can he be pushed aside while Republicans find ways to appeal to his core supporters?
Party gadfly David Frum seems to assume Trump will go away quietly:
[O]nce safely excluded from the presidency, Donald Trump will no longer matter. His voters, however, will. There is no conservative future without them.
Frum, to his credit, was warning Republicans for years that the GOP’s indifference to the actual views of its actual voters on the economy and immigration would eventually become a critical problem. He was right. So he has some credibility in seeking to craft a policy agenda and message that scratches the itch Trump scratched with so much excessive force.
But that doesn’t mean Trump won’t have anything to say about it.
Jeet Heer isn’t a Republican but makes a good point in responding to Frum that you cannot keep the baby without the bathwater when it comes to Trump’s fans:
[W]ill Trump really cease to matter in November? After all, no human being loves the spotlight more, and he’s chased after media attention since he was a young man. Being the nominee of a major party is a dream job for him, because it means people will hang on his every word. Even if he loses badly in November, Trump will likely cling to his status as the strangest “party elder” ever—and convert it into new, attention-grabbing and lucrative projects.
Fortunately for Republicans, the old tradition of referring to the immediate past presidential nominee as the “titular head” of the party has fallen into disuse. But presidential nominees rarely just go away. Perhaps the most self-atomizing recent major-party nominee was Democrat Michael Dukakis. But his demise after 1988 was not strictly attributable to his loss of what most Democrats considered a winnable general-election race against George H.W. Bush; his last two years as governor of Massachusetts also made a terrible mockery of his claims of an economic and fiscal “miracle.” And, besides, nobody thought of Dukakis as ideologically distinctive or as leading any sort of political “movement.”
The bottom line is that the same media tactics that improbably made Trump a viable presidential candidate in the first place will help him stay relevant even after a general-election loss, unless (a) it is of catastrophic dimensions and (b) cannot be blamed on tepid party Establishment support for the nominee.
If Trump loses so badly that he does indeed become irrelevant, then people like Frum will have another problem: competing with those who want to dismiss the whole Trump phenomenon as a freak event with no real implications for the Republican future. And yes, such people will be thick on the ground, attributing the loss to Trump’s abandonment of strict conservative orthodoxy on the very issues Frum thinks were responsible for the GOP alienation of its white working-class base from the get-go. There will be show trials and witch hunts aimed not just at Donald Trump and his most conspicuous supporters and enablers, but also at people like Frum — and more broadly, the Reformicon tribe of which he is often regarded as a key member — who think Trump was revealing important shortcomings of the orthodoxy many others will be trying to restore.
So, ironically, and even tragically, #NeverTrumper David Frum may discover that Trump will not only still be around, but could wind up on his side of the intra-party barricades.
By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, July 6, 2016
“Trump Campaign Branding Scheme”: This Isn’t New; Donald Trump Has Been Profiting Off His Campaign For Months
Donald Trump’s spectacularly bad fundraising report for the month of May, published over the weekend, got a lot of attention. The press picked apart the document, reporting on the lavish amounts of money Trump has paid his own companies, his family’s companies, and his political allies.
“Trump’s campaign spends $6 million with Trump companies,” the Associated Press reported.
But if the media wanted to find evidence of possible wrongdoing, or at least of an extremely bizarre campaign finance regimen, they needn’t have waited until now: Trump, his family, and his associates have been profiting off of this campaign for months.
In February, the New York Times reported that, of the 12.4 million the Trump campaign had spent in 2015,
About $2.7 million more was paid to at least seven companies Mr. Trump owns or to people who work for his real estate and branding empire, repaying them for services provided to his campaign. That total included more than $2 million for flights on his own planes and helicopter, a quarter of a million dollars to his Fifth Avenue office tower, and even $66,000 to Keith Schiller, his bodyguard and the head of security at the Trump Organization.
We reported back in March that, in January, Trump had spent around six percent of total campaign expenditures on Trump businesses, and the salaries of Trump employees.
In May, Forbes reported that, through the end of March, Trump had paid Trump-owned businesses $4.3 million, or 10 percent of total campaign expenditures through that date.
And now, through May, we know that of the $63 million the Trump campaign has spent this election cycle, 10 percent has been spent on Trump-owned organizations, in keeping with the trend this whole time.
Trump’s campaign expenses happen to be with businesses he owns or is affiliated with. A look at the list of top Trump campaign vendors is telling: Aside from Rick Reed media, a GOP advertising group, most are in some way Trump-related.
Tag Air is the Trump-owned company that operates his private jet. $4.3 million.
Ace Specialties, who manufacture the “Make America Great Again” hats, is owned by Christl Mahfouz, who the Wall Street Journal reported in October serves on the board of the Eric J. Trump foundation. $4 million.
WizBang solutions is run by the Mike Ciletti, the former head of the Make America Great Again PAC, which the Trump campaign disavowed after pressure from the media. They do “printing and design services,” according to the Washington Post. Mike Ciletti is a close business associate of Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s recently-fired campaign manager. $2 million.
And on and on and on: You get the point. When Trump isn’t funneling donor dollars and his own loans to Trump organizations or employees, he’s spending them on the companies of close associates and friends.
And he can pay those “loans” back to himself using donor dollars, as long as he does it before the Republican National Convention in July. Can Donald Trump afford to lose the $45 million he has loaned his campaign so far? We can’t know for sure, especially without seeing his tax returns… Trump did wonder aloud, in May: “Do I want to sell a couple of buildings and self-fund? I don’t know that I want to do that necessarily.”
So, we’ll see. Keep your eyes on the FEC filings.
But now that Trump has dropped all pretense of “self-funding” his general election campaign, this whole branding scheme may get a bit more complicated. Trump loaned his campaign $11.5 million in March, his largest one-month loan. After that, his monthly contributions started decreasing: $7.5 million in April, and just $2.2 million in May.
May was the first month the Trump campaign took in more from donations ($3.1 million) than it did from Trump’s loans.
That’s meaningful. As Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an election law expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, noted in a New York Times article published yesterday, “as soon as you start using campaign money that has come in from donors, not just the money that he has loaned to himself, and he uses it for something that he will personally keep, or his family will personally keep, that is what crosses the line.”
By: Matt Shuham, The National Memo, June 22, 2016
“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