Open Thread: The Shoddier the Jury-Rigging, the Quicker the Ship Falls Apart

The warring powers within Lord Smallgloves’ court…

… Or sometimes, all three factors! And the blowback on every trumpstunt continues:

The State Department drafted its own statement last month marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day that explicitly included a mention of Jewish victims, according to people familiar with the matter, but President Donald Trump’s White House blocked its release…

Instead, the White House’s own statement drew widespread criticism for overlooking the Jews’ suffering, and was cheered by neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer…

The White House’s explanations for omitting Jews in its statement haven’t quelled the controversy and in some cases made it worse. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks originally defended the omission to CNN saying, “we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said he didn’t regret the wording.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday accused critics of “nitpicking” over the statement. He said it was written “with the help of an individual who is both Jewish and the descendent of Holocaust survivors.” A source with knowledge of the situation told POLITICO that person was Trump aide Boris Epshteyn…

Great job breaking it, Repubs!

This is really reminding me of the Watergate-revelation days, only louder and shoddier, as befits the farce succeeding a tragedy. I need to dig out my beloved copies of The Friends of Richard Nixon (George V. Higgins) and How the Good Guys Finally Won (Jimmy Breslin). Modern reviews complain that they’re insufficiently descriptive, to which I can only reply: You had to be there!

Open Thread: Any Journalists Up for Some High-Stakes Adventure?

(see * bottom of post)

Next day:

You know that old folk curse, “May you live in interesting times?”

* schrodingers_cat: The movie has been panned by critics but I love its title track, especially the panchakshara* stotra, the female voice in Sanskrit interspersed with a rapid fire, rap-like (in Hindi) description of Shiva.
Panchakshara == 5 letters (na ma shi va) nam = name shiva

Friday Evening Open Thread: Goddess Bless David Fahrenthold, Now & Forever

He has most certainly earned the first Pulitzer for Excellence in White-Hat Trolling.

Also, too, being a genuine billionaire has its perks:


Apart from mocking the little man behind in front of the curtain, what’s on the agenda as we start the weekend?

Open Thread: Bravo, Team Clinton!

Yep, that’s the Eichenwald article Tom Levenson highlighted earlier today. Click on any of the tweets here to read the whole list. Add your own in the comments, if you like!

Open Thread: “Can Trump Focus Enough to Run the Oval Office?”

I’ve suspected for some time that Donald Trump has ADHD — and I’m not alone. No sooner than time, such rumors are beginning to rise to the level of Very Serious Public discussion. In Politico, “Donald Trump’s Shortest Attribute Isn’t His Fingers“:

In the early ‘90s, Barbara Res, a project manager on Trump Tower who was a vice president in the Trump Organization, attempted to prepare him for a deposition for a court case pitting a Trump-led group against the Los Angeles school district in a battle for a coveted piece of property. “He said, ‘No, I don’t need to be prepared,’” Res said last week from her home in New Jersey. Finally, she persuaded him to give her, an associate and an attorney two hours in his office. “In the two hours, he kept taking phone calls,” Res said. Unprepared, he did “poorly” in the deposition, she said; his group lost the case, and the deal fell apart. “He was so distracted,” she said. “He really couldn’t stay focused.”

“I think he’s definitely got attention deficit disorder,” said Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio, who interviewed Trump five times for a total of eight hours and found himself frustrated trying to get him to concentrate on answers to questions about his parents, his childhood, just about anything. “That doesn’t mean he isn’t really smart—it just means he’s not at his best when he’s asked to dwell on a topic.”

The question of Trump’s attention span recently has leapt from a longtime employee complaint to a meaningful national issue. Res, O’Donnell and others like them have long collected stories of their exasperation over Trump’s impetuous nature as a boss. But this one personal attribute has become a subject of more widespread concern as voters consider how Trump’s habits and personality might translate to the presidency—a job that demands uncommon focus, with life in the West Wing often feeling like a control panel of perpetually blinking emergency lights.
Read more

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

The work of accurately covering Trump could kill a man

I’m gonna throw this out as an answer to why the Times (and other supposedly responsible media outlets) are acting so strange on Trump and CLinton. Yes, the senior management of the New York Times has had a hard-on for the Clinton family since 1992. But Krugman is right, this year they have acted really, really strange. I think it comes down to something more fundamental than personal animus or whether Hillary Clinton has held any press conferences. At its heart the Times and similar media outlets have a hackable business model. And Trump is hacking it.

It all comes down to the graphic below. The Times stakes its reputation on independence, balance etc., which means this figure below must not be allowed to happen under any circumstances.


The New York Daily News could not care less if you call it biased. The NYDN is biased. They think Republicans are assholes. They have a clear editorial perspective. In a city with six hundred different print news outlets that is a perfectly reasonable position to take. FOX News? You could make a thousand graphs like that and they still won’t give a shit. Just ask Media Matters. In the same way Trump only ‘courted’ black people to reassure white suburban women, that ironic FOX slogan comforts people who want to think black people are bad and dangerous but hate the connotations that a word like racist carries with it.

The Times is not one more paper in a crowded market. The Times imagines itself to be the outlet, the singular gateway to journalistic credibility. You could say the Wall Street Journal and the Times are the dual avatars of conservatives and centrist Democrats, but the NYT is not having any of that. They want to be the first place Republicans and Democrats get their news. Maybe five or six other outlets spread around print and TV see themselves the same way.

An outlet like the Times has no real defense against a human Gish gallop like Trump. He has done so many reprehensible things, is doing, and will do next week that it takes superhuman resources just to keep up. How is that Trump University fraud case going? I have no idea. I almost forgot about it between reading how amazingly racist Trump was as a landlord and goggling at the chutzpah of him complaining about the Clinton foundation while every detail of the Pam Bondi bribery story is so much worse than I thought*. Just last week he gave a screaming fascist tirade in place of a speech about immigration policy and I already have to remind myself how bad it really was.

Meanwhile Hillary is a fucking boy scout. She doesn’t do anything worth criticizing. She stays on script. She has good advisers who keep her from offending anybody unless she means to (i.e. Breitbart, Stormfront and the KKK). If you dig a little deeper, you find that she basically does things by the book. If you interview everyone who has ever known her, you find out that she…does things pretty much by the book. You can read every damn email she has written in her capacity as Secretary of State and the story stays frustratingly the same. If anything the story gets weaker, not stronger, the more you know about it. I challenge people to find any other remotely powerful human being who would withstand this level of scrutiny. Okay, fine, Obama. Find me two. In a fair world where stories reported actual bad things that people did Times coverage would look like the graph above, and half of the stories about Hillary would be stuff like accidentally starting a reply-to-all disaster at State.

Bus as I said, the graph must not happen. And as the old advice goes for attorneys when you don’t have the facts or the law on your side, pound the table. CNN and the Times have to criticize something, but she rudely gives them stale crumbs to work with. Trump is a lavish cruise ship buffet of leads. In any normal race that Pam Bondi bribery story (also fraudulent donation reporting and tax evasion) would be duck confit on glazed figs. You could work a story like that for months. But try to visualize the main buffet table on a upper-tier cruise. You can’t see the end of it. You could cross the international date line before you realize the confit is even there.

Further, I think that point about taking your time to digest a story is extremely important. Gish gallops work because people cannot process any one lie before the next one hits you. Clinton is the polar opposite of a Gish gallop. Unless someone wants to claim Benghazi has some meat left on its bones (Gowdy? Has anyone seen Trey Gowdy?) emails is all they have. A reporter assigned to say something bad about Clinton** has to keep coming back to the email thing over and over again. That means they have time to understand it, to dig in, try different angles, find the person who won’t answer questions and make them a villain. People keep hearing about this same story to the point where they assume she did something wrong. Not everyone knows the first rule of judging a scandal story – the most damning specific allegation leads. If a two thousand word story opens with shadows, or clouds, or a coolish breeze out of the northeast then you will not find anything worth reading further in. Burying the killer allegation where only devoted readers will find it is journalistic malpractice of the first degree.

The Times needs to print something, because figure one above. So we get clouds, and people imagine Clinton must have done something bad, and Paul Krugman pulls his hair out, because the only thing you need to hack the business model at the Times is to be the worst person on Earth.

(*) Time to dust off Brad DeLong’s rule #1 about the Bushies: even knowing it is worse than you think, it is still worse than you think.
(**) A given reporter would certainly protest if you phrase it that way, but from an editorial standpoint that’s what it is.