Not Getting Out Of The Boat

I’m not going to be watching tonight.  My wife and son will be, but me?  I’m around the corner to a bar with the ballgame on.

I’m a wimp. I’ll admit it. I can’t take the debates anymore.  I get too pissed off; I get scared; I get enraged…you get the idea.  I’d rather follow on my phone, switching between the Balloon Juice thread and Twitter, and maybe the Guardian liveblog.

My goal — to get to sleep tonight before two or three, having dodged the useless-replay that I’ve found myself pacing through for hours before I actually get to sleep.

So, this is just to create a thread for those who want to rage, rage against the dying of the light endless derp of modern media, and to offer a little distraction.

Which would be this.  I heard it on the radio today just before I headed off to the dentist to confirm the horrible suspicion that the howling pain in my molar meant (another) root canal (tomorrow at 4, thanks for asking).

I’ve always loved this song, but for some reason it seemed so on point to this election. It certainly put me in a better mood than I had any right (or inclination) to hope for — and maybe it’ll do the same for some of you, mes sembables, mes frères (et soeurs). 

It doesn’t make me feel like the media will ever do its job — I just heard a clip on the local Boston public broadcasting station in which New York Times reporter (of course) Farah Stockman rather giddily proclaimed that this election wasn’t about facts or policy or any of that stuff (in a segment seemingly decrying the calls for fact checking the debate) but about fear.

Well, if so, oh Main Stream Media stalwart, it is because you and your stunningly less clever than they think they are colleagues have allowed it to become so.

So yeah.  Bare Naked Ladies beat our elite political press any day and twice on Sundays.  Enjoy, and say what you will below.



Floor Polish or Dessert Topping: Media Edition.

I think it’s a serious risk to disagree with Adam; he’s basically always right.  But I do find myself differing from him on one question: is The New York Times actively trying to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency, or are their actions better explained by a less evil, more dangerous tendency?

Adam’s on the overt evil side: they’re trying to shiv her side. I’m thinking that what we’re seeing is an unconscious process, which is actually a much more difficult problem to tackle within elite political journalism.

My view:  I communicate with some NYTimes people, and I’ve known some there for a long time, though I’m not in close touch with that cohort these days.  I don’t have any contact with the Sulzberger/Baquet level, but below that I’m quite confident that there’s no conspiracy going on.  If you could ask just about anybody at the Times, I’m sure they recognize that Trump is a shit show and all that.

But that doesn’t alter the problem there, the way the deck is nonetheless stacked at the Times and other top-echelon outlets.

A big part of the reason, ISTM, is that within a lot of journalism there is a very particular definition of what a story is, and the concept of accuracy is narrowly defined.  A story need not be about facts, but about claims of alledged facts — Clinton’s emails raise pay-for-play concerns; and to be accurate such a story need only rise to the level of “some see in the new email release more indications of a pay-to-play connection to the Clinton Foundation.”   That is — the fact that someone is willing to say such a dreadful deed took place makes the statement and the story “accurate” even if no reasonable reading of the underlying material suggest such nefariousness actually took place.

Goya_y_Lucientes,_Francisco_de_-_Fool`s_Folly_-_Google_Art_Project

That paradigm leads The New York Times and the rest of them to make the same mistakes over and over again — and to get played in the same way seemingly every week. The right wing media activist camp — think Judicial Watch and the email farrago — is very good at pushing the story buttons, and you have a circumstance where the Times bites, over and over again, and finds itself once again dipping into  the Clinton well.

What makes that so wretched is that if The New York Times were anti-Clinton in the way, say, Fox News is, there’d be an obvious counter:  consider the source. But because this is done within a framework that the top practitioners believe is the right way to do journalism, pushback often serves to confirm their judgment in their own eyes. If partisans complain, they must be doing something right.  And given that the elite media basically talks to itself, it’s hard to insert a corrective, though I and many others are trying to do so on and off social media.

ETA: It’s also important to note that the Times  did engage the Trump-Attorneys General bribery story today, placing it prominently on the website.  There are some oddities in the story — not uncommon for a publication playing catch-up.  And the test will be the follow up: how deeply the Times chooses to pursue each of the elements of the story in the days ahead.  If they do give it the full effort, then (a) that will be good and (b) it will suggest that much of the crap coverage of Clinton we’ve seen is the product of pre-existing bias (Clintons are yucky) combined with the story dynamics and incentives discussed here.

There’s an interview with Bob Woodward that the Harvard’s press office published today that to me expresses the problem of a Village, an epistemically closed community of practice that can’t easily interrogate the ways its own methods undermine the mission that they do in fact, sincerly, believe they’re pursuing. Woodward says:

Bob Costa, a reporter at the Post, and I interviewed Trump and we published the transcript and there are all kinds of things in there. For instance, he says, “I bring out rage in people,” and he’s proud of it. He forecast a giant recession, he was very pessimistic about the economy, and since then it’s only done better. He was asked, because he was running in the primaries in the Republican Party, a party that contained Lincoln and Nixon, “Why did Lincoln succeed?” And Trump’s answer was, “He did some things that needed to be done.” [We then asked,] “Why did Nixon fail?” “Because of his personality.” And we had to say, “Yeah, but his criminality was part of it.” And Trump said, “Oh, yeah.” It tells you who he is. 

The same with Hillary Clinton. There were just voluminous stories on her. Let me give you an example from The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2016, a two-part series they did on Hillary’s role in Libya. It explains her role, exactly what she wanted to do. At one point, after [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi’s death, it quotes her saying to some of her staff, “We came, we saw, he died.’ There was a series of spectacular Post stories about the Clinton Foundation, about her time at the State Department, and so forth. 

The Trump interview is a story, sure.  It was accurate, in the sense that I’m sure Trump said what Woodward and Costa said he said.  It’s not revealing of very much — like what Trump has done and what his actions in the various enterprises he’s undertaken would tell us about a potential Trump presidency.  But its accurate.

More important for the discussion of Clinton and whether press treatment of her reflects conscious or unconscious bias is the comparison between the kind of material Woodward celebrates as journalism about Trump vs. what he recognized in the Clinton Coverage.  The Libya story he cites is a perfectly reasonable one one, exactly what you’d expect a newspaper to do.  The Clinton Foundation stories…not so much, and so on.

The point’s obvious, I think.  All of the stories listed above are “news” in some way.  They meet (mostly) the narrowest criterion of accuracy.  But they add up to a very different body of work, and evidence of very different approaches to the two candidates, born, I think, of the construct of the “sweet story” much more than of a planned journalistic campaign to derail Hillary.

TL:DR?  You don’t need to invoke malice.  An intellectual laziness* born of bad craft habits and professional norms fully explains what we see — which is bad news, as that’s harder to fix than explicit enmity.

*I don’t mean to suggest that Times journalists and their peers elsewhere are lazy in the sense that they don’t work hard.  They work constantly for (in almost all cases in the print world) relatively short money.  I’m just saying that they don’t sufficiently train the traditional journalist’s skepticism on their own endeavor, and so find it very hard to credit outside criticism, or to recognize what it is in fact they’re doing, not just day by day, but summed over the life of a campaign.

Image: Francisco de Goya, Fool’s Folly, 1815-1819



Dear Washington Post

Here’s another slightly edited dispatch from my ongoing off-social-media conversation with some political reporters on the obvious implicit bias I see in coverage of Clinton vs. Trump.  The reporters I’ve engaged publicly and privately don’t see it that way — and they are, I firmly believe, sincere and honest in that belief.  So the task, as I see it, is to build the argument story by story and (as possible) in analysis of the sum of coverage, that they’re wrong, and to do so in a way that honest and expert reporters can read, analyze, and, I hope, become persuaded by.

What caught my eye today was this article in the Washington Post, “Inside Bill Clinton’s nearly $18 million job as ‘Honorary Chancellor’ of a for-profit university,” by Rosalind S. Hellerman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee.  That story has received professional praise as a well reported deep dive — and it is!  Really.

School of athents

By that I mean:  it is definitely a long (2604 words) and detailed dissection of Bill Clinton’s involvement with Laureate University, a major international for profit higher-ed company.  The reporters play fair by the rules of the craft:  they show their work, and a reader can see where each individual fact comes from.

But does that make it a good story, an honest one, or one that within the larger story — that of the 2016 presidential election — meets basic standards of journalism as it serves readers interests?

Not at all.

That’s what I argued below in my note to one of my correspondents.  Here, the point is that the elite political press — like any group of people working on the same stuff in substantial isolation from the outside world — has its own professional criteria for excellence.  They’ve got a value system and an expectation or understanding of what represents good work or bad.  They’re not all wrong in that.

But as far as I can see from the outside, theirs is a bunker-dwelling, mostly technical standard: well reported = good, for example.  I don’t think that there is a conspiracy at the Times  or the Post, or CNN or what have you simply to shiv the Clintons.

But what I think outside the bunker (and please do recall:  a presidential campaign is a mind-and-body deranging experience; these folks really are working without access to a lot of the reality checks that could help) those of us who are looking at the coverage both closely and synoptically see the problem not as one of reporting, but of coverage.

That is, what matters is the way stories are assigned, framed, their narratives interpreted within each piece, how they’re edited and placed (2604 words!) affects the overall message readers and the electorate as a whole receive.

Thus, the ongoing and increasingly inexplicable failure of The New York Times to engage what should be a burgeoning Trump bribery scandal with state attorneys general and Trump U.  Thus all the stories on the Clinton foundation which (a) failed to show what was implied and (b) omitted crucial context, like the Bush Foundation headed by a Powell.  And thus today’s story, in which two good reporters distill what had to have been a substantial amount of work that taken all-in-all demonstrates that Bill Clinton made a lot of money while there was, in the words of the story itself, “no evidence that Laureate received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton…”

What there was, instead, was a reason to ask whether or not such special favors might have taken place.  The answer was no.

There the story should have ended.  But because this was the Clintons, and this is the elite political press, it was impossible to accept that answer.  Hence what is a type specimen for how the press is getting this election wrong — with potentially disastrous consequences.

With that as prologue (I know…logorrhea…), my breakdown of the piece for my journalist-contact.  We began by marveling at the size of Bill’s fee — which truly is pretty astonishing:

__________________

I agree with you on the sum, though from where I sit, with my full time job in higher education (and a professor’s kid, and w. two professor-siblings and, and, and…) what bothers me most about that clearly outsize wage is that it is less of an outlier than it should be.  As I’m sure you know, top academic positions at a lot of places are now paid at seven figure levels.  A million or so/year as a college president  is different from $3.6 million/year as an honorary chairman, certainly.  But it’s also true (and a scandal) that higher ed, both non and for profit has headed down the same path for CEO and senior management compensation that large businesses have.  That’s troubling.

But what got me about the story was the contrast between the reporting craft you rightly recognize: meticulous, detailed pursuit of both individual incidents and the financial details…and the lack of any substance to the clear thrust of the story: that this was another example of soft corruption in the Clinton family.  You look at the lede and it clearly asserts a pay-off.  Clinton invites someone to a working dinner who is an FOB, who later hires Bill for lots of money.   Read more



Dear New York Times…

POSTER’S NOTE:  Dear all,

I’ve just done something I essentially never do.  I’ve gone into two comments and redacted a couple of sentences that made what read to me as sexually hostile statements about a specific reporter.

The commenters are long time and respected members of the community, and I not only get that this is a delightfully expressive environment — I’ve certainly had occasion to discuss unnatural acts with oxidized farm tools myself.  But in the real world, reporters are being threatened daily by Trump folks and others — and female reporters get savaged more, and in more horrible ways.  I don’t believe in banning except in true extremis, and the comments edited don’t come close to ban-hammer eligibility.  But I don’t feel OK leaving that particular line of attack up on the blog, or attached to a post under my name.  So I’ve exercised the god-like powers of the blog to take out a couple of lines that hit too close to home, at least for me, in a time and place where women doing difficult jobs have enough to deal with as it is.

If anyone’s bothered by this, write to me, and I’ll make sure you get a full refund —

Tom

_________________________

Hey, folks.  Been spending way too much time on Twitter lately, ranting about coverage and the election, and hence have sucked up all the would-be blogging time.  But in doing so, I’ve managed to begin a conversation with some folks who actually perform such coverage.  One of them asked me to be specific about a charge they found hard to swallow:  that there is a systematic difference between the way Trump is covered and Clinton is in the major venues.

Rockwell fact and fiction

That correspondent and others pointed out, accurately, that at least since May, and in many cases before then, there have been major, damning, utterly critical stories about Trump.  Given that, wouldn’t complaints about, say, stories on Clinton’s emails or the alleged corruption inherent in the Clinton Foundation-State Department nexus suggest more a partisan reaction, hypersensitive about stories critical of the side I favor, rather than a measured accounting of the full coverage record?

My answer was and that while there are indeed such stories, and that many of the Clinton pieces that have enraged me are at some definition of accuracy perfectly on-the-beam.  But then I go on to say that the question of systematic bias is not about each single story.  Rather, it turns on the entire editorial apparatus of campaign coverage: how those stories are assigned, pursued, resourced, and extended past day one or two coverage, and how the facts within them are set up for interpretation.

That argument leads to an obvious and appropriate response:

Prove it.

It’s going to take me some time to do so across the range of questions I’ve actually received.  But there was a piece in today’s New York Times that provides a case study (the fancy name for anecdata) that offers an example of the gap between fine-scale factual accuracy and a truthful exercise in journalism

For the record:  what I’m attempting to do isn’t simply to say “You Suck!” to The New York Times, the first target of my logorrhea below, or anyone else.  It is to help smart and incredibly hard working people realize what’s often hard to notice deep in the weeds and the mud.  That would be exactly where one is in the maze — which would be the first step to navigating to somewhere better.

With that as prologue, here’s what I just wrote to one of my correspondents.  That reporter challenged me on several points, and I began what will be a multipart response by walking back, just a little,  my somewhat incendiary claim that current campaign coverage reminded me of the Times’ Iraq war lead-in coverage — to which I added my own desire to give a specific example of what I meant by a biased approach to a story.  So here goes, in a slightly edited version of what I sent in private:

________________

…The Iraq War mention isn’t a perfect analogy, I’ll agree:  there’s no comparison to Judith Miller in the Times’ current campaign coverage, and there’s no sign I can see of the editorial or management errors that allowed her coverage (and other stuff too, TBH) such impact.

 The Iraq war serves for me, and I think many critics of the Times as a kind of existence proof:  the Times is capable of major failures that have huge consequences, which means, to me, that it’s important to be very vigilant.  I know this seems obvious, and perhaps even insulting to those inside the organization – but from outside the newsroom, it often appears that the NYT has a difficult time admitting errosr, especially those more complicated than a straightforward factual mistake.   A personal anecdote:  I had drinks some years ago with a NYTimes reporter (still there, not on the politics desk) and at one point in our conversation (late, after a number of rounds) he said something like NYTimes reporters don’t write stuff that’s not true; we get more scrutiny than you believe so we make sure it doesn’t happen. (Fallible memory, some years, but that was the gist).  And I’m sure the scrutiny is there (heck – here I am part of it.) But that was not a reassuring statement, as I think you can see. 

 I’ll get into this more below but my broad framework is that with exceptions, the way the thumb is on the scale (from my point of view) in NYT coverage of the campaign is not at the level you work, on the reporting day by day and the production of individual stories.  It is rather on the editorial apparatus that creates the framework for readers to interpret your coverage.

You ask for specifics – let me give you an example from today’s paper, “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation to State Dept.”

[Edited to add:  Hmmm, didn’t realize how long this sucker was on the page. Continued after the newly inserted jump] Read more



Shocking Lack of Respect

This is appalling:

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ripped President Barack Obama on Sunday over the administration’s response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory.

“The president should get over it,” McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Get over it — get over your temper tantrum, Mr. President. It’s time we work together with our Israeli friends and try to stem this tide of ISIS and Iranian movement throughout the region.”

Last week, Obama said that he is concerned about Netanyahu’s comments during the campaign opposing the creation of a Palestinian state.

“We continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only way for the long-term security of Israel,” Obama told the Huffington Post Friday. “Given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.

“We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership,” the president continued. “So that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”

“The least of your problems are what Bibi Netanyahu said in a political campaign,” McCain said Sunday. “I think the president maybe shouldn’t like it, but thousands are being slaughtered by ISIS. The Iranians have taken over the major capitols of Lebanon, Syria, Beirut and Baghdad. It pales in significance to the situation which continues to erode throughout the Middle East, and it puts America at risk. … The president has his priorities so screwed up that it’s unbelievable.”

McCain said Obama is letting his personal problems with Netanyahu get in the way of policy.

“Either that or he’s delusional. I’m not sure which,” he said.

If you think that any member of Congress would EVER say this about any other President, you have lost your mind. This is as racist as it gets, and McCain should know it and probably does. Rather than acknowledge Bibi’s lies and the fact that it does create diplomatic problems, McCain chooses instead to infantalize the President, and the only reason he is doing so is because Obama is black. Period. End of story. The only thing he didn’t do was add “boy” to the end of the temper tantrum remark. And CNN’s Gloria Borger didn’t so much as flinch.

And for McCain, the man of legendary temper, to accuse anyone else of having a temper tantrum, is just priceless.

Seriously, fuck these republican scumbags.



Brace Yourselves- John McCain is Right

For reasons I still do not understand, the Air Force has been trying to kill of the A-10 Warthog for, well, it seems like forever. Their latest bullshit excuse was that they needed to phase it out so that the maintenance personnel can be used to work on the F35. If that makes no sense whatsoever to you, good. You are a thinking human being. At any rate, the A-10 has an unlikely hero:

Sen. John McCain says the Air Force won’t be able to retire the A-10 Warthog ground attack jet now that he’s in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain said Thursday the A-10 is the best close-air support aircraft ever made and there is “no doubt” Congress will prevent its retirement. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson has 80 of the twin-jet planes and trains A-10 pilots.

McCain says there’s no replacement for the jet’s close-air support mission and pointed to a June friendly fire in Afghanistan where a B-1 bomber mistakenly targeted American troops, killing five.

Even if he is just motivated to save the Arizona jobs, this is decidedly a good thing for soldiers on the ground.



Spit take…

John-McCain-is-angry-at-clouds

Washington is a funny town.

I took a break from work and went for a walk. It was a hot day, so I stopped and got a nice cranberry lemonade. Very refreshing. I took a sip, turned the corner and saw the above image in a free distribution box. I laughed so hard I sprayed in a full-on spit take.

Some how I would never describe John McCain as the “Conscience of the Senate”. Even though he was against torture, he still reversed himself and supported it when Bush was President. Despite stated misgivings, he was still solid for Bush’s Iraq war . Hell, for more than a decade, John McCain has never heard of a conflict anywhere in the world that he doesn’t want to turn into a full blown shooting war (I thinks he’s wanted to send US troops to fight in a dozen conflicts so far this year).

John McCain is not a foreign policy expert, unless “foreign policy expert” is a new term of art for an old coot who is always wrong about any and every world event.

McCain is also firmly pro-corruption. Remember when he stopped investigating the Abramoff scandal in exchange for Grover Norquist’s support for his failed 2008 WH run? Oh, and then there was the Keating Five and the long, long list of many other scandals that will always follow him around.

Calling John McCain the “Conscience of the Senate” is risible.

I would have gone with “Angry Old Man of the Senate” or ‘Raging Irrational ID of the Senate” or “Endless War Cheerleader of the Senate” or “Bitter Defeated-by-a black-man Crank of the Senate” or “Aging Asshole of the Senate” or something else.

There were lots of choices the little-read conservative rag could have used, but connecting McCain to “conscience” is just funny. Especially if you know anything about the auto-partisan, pro-corruption, war-infatuated very, very senior Senator from Arizona.

How about another open thread.

Cheers