Never Letting a Trivial Detail Go to Waste

It’s been one of those weeks where all kinds of disheartening stories have leapt, in rapid succession, to the front of the national news cycle. Included have been acts of police brutality, rioting and looting that are destroying people’s lives and livelihoods, and multiple counts of shameless political theater put on by our “leaders” in government (as everything burns to the ground behind them). And oh yeah, did you forget about that global pandemic that’s still going on?

In other words, there are plenty of topics for a political columnist to delve into. But frankly, it’s been a trying week for me personally, topped off by my elderly parents getting into a car accident up in the mountains the other day. Don’t worry, they’re okay other than some scrapes and soreness (thank God), but I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this week. So, today, instead of getting into a terribly serious topic, I figured I’d wrap up some thoughts I’d been jotting down on a strain of today’s political discourse that I’ve been seeing more and more examples lately.

I’ll begin… with a metaphor.

One of my all-time favorite television shows is NYPD Blue. The 1990’s police drama was edgy, extremely well written and acted, and well ahead of its time. Those who’ve read my novels may have even picked up on some influences from the show.

There’s a particular episode I sometimes think about when observing today’s political debates. It guest-starred actor Zack Ward. Ward’s name wouldn’t ring a bell for most people, but you’ve almost assuredly seen (and enjoyed) at least a little bit of his work. As a youngster, he played the red-haired, raccoon-hat wearing school bully who torments Ralphie and his friends in the film classic, A Christmas Story.

In NYPD Blue, a grown-up Ward portrays a not-so-bright guy named Jerry. In the episode, Jerry gets upset with a buddy of his named Howie over an unpaid debt. Specifically, Howie lost a bet to him and didn’t pay up. The bet was over how long Howie’s petite girlfriend could last inside one of those big laundromat dryers… while it’s running.

Howie’s a real catch, ladies.

Anyway, the girlfriend didn’t hold up as well as Howie had hoped. After just a couple minutes, she could no longer bear the heat and her body being tossed around in circles. She demanded to be let out, and the contest ended. Howie lost. But again, he refused to settle up with Jerry.

Well, this ticked off Jerry — so much that he quickly went home, grabbed his gun, returned to the laundromat, and fired a shot at Howie. Only, the bullet missed Howie and hit someone else inside the laundromat… who ended up dying from the wound.

It wasn’t a great day for anyone, when you think about it. And everyone involved in the incident fled the scene… Well, everyone except the girlfriend who was still too dizzy and sick to pull off an effective getaway.

Enter pop-culture icon Andy Sipowicz (played by the great Dennis Franz). Once he and other Precinct 15 detectives figured out what had happened (the girlfriend wasn’t particularly helpful), they snatched up Jerry and brought him down to the station to be interrogated. To their surprise, Jerry was pretty upfront about what happened. Only, according to him, there was a much bigger fish to fry than the issue of a dead man on a laundromat floor.

Jerry said that the man detectives should really be looking at was Howie. After all, Howie was the guy who “welshed” on the bet, and put the entire series of events in motion. So it was Howie, not Jerry, who should be going to prison.

To be clear, Jerry’s defense wasn’t just some lame, Hail Mary pass to save his own rear. He genuinely believed that he was making a compelling point, that he was in the right, and that the detectives — once they understood that details — would kick him loose.

Jerry clearly didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the situation he was in, nor the glaring asymmetry in his argument. To him, the key issue everyone should have been focused on was the monetary debt that hadn’t been paid. Even after Jerry was arrested for murder, and was being taken away, he spotted Howie at the police station and scolded him for being a welsher.

Needless to say, Jerry’s reasoning was absurd (albeit entertaining). It was indicative of an individual who lacks moral perspective, and has a very warped sense of societal accountability.

But I’m not convinced that would be the general take among observers in the realm of today’s politics. Because, truth be told, Jerry is actually quite representative of our political discourse, whether it be on cable-news, the Internet, or even in casual discussion.

Whenever there’s a controversial, incontrovertible issue or incident that draws national headlines and challenges (or reflects poorly on) the inclinations of a political tribe, a certain defense mechanism kicks in. Members of that tribe quickly focus on some minute detail of the story, and accept and promote it not only as the conclusive takeaway, but also as a wholesale discrediting of the larger controversy.

We saw this a few weeks ago when President Trump strongly implied that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough (non-coincidentally a prominent Trump critic) murdered a former aide. The young woman, in reality, died after fainting and hitting her head. Trump’s accusation was a big story, as it should be when a sitting president advances a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that desecrates the memory of an innocent woman, while bringing needless pain and suffering to her family. By any objective standard of decency, what the president did was an utter disgrace.

But no so fast… Trump defenders (including the White House Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany) latched onto an old radio interview Scarborough did with Don Imus. It took place a couple years after the aide’s untimely death. In the last few seconds of that interview (which was lighthearted and jovial), Imus — a shock jock — said something shocking. He made a distasteful joke about Scarborough sleeping with an intern and then killing her. Scarborough laughed off the comment, and kind of rolled with it as the interview ended.

Somehow, in the minds of the Trump faithful, this hurried, seconds-long exchange from 17 years ago became the real story. As far as they were concerned, it not only negated Trump’s controversial statements and put the burden on Scarborough to have to answer for his insensitivity, but even bolstered Trump’s case that police investigators should be looking into Scarborough.

We saw something similar just a few days ago, after Trump’s widely panned photo-op in front St. John’s Episcopal Church. Protesters were cleared out of the area beforehand by U.S. Park Police and Secret Service who used, by their own admission, smoke canisters and pepper balls. Then, Trump and members of his cabinet walked to the nearby church, video crew in tote, where the president posed in front of the building holding up a Bible. They all then returned to the White House where the video was edited, dubbed with dramatic music, and posted on the White House’s social media accounts.

The stunt was pretty clearly designed to convey strength following some media heckling Trump took from his critics about “hiding out” in the White House bunker the night before, when vandals from a George Floyd protest set part of the church on fire.

The real story, by any objective standard, was protesters being forcibly removed with smoke and chemicals in order for a President of the United States to, as the American Conservative’s Ron Dreher editorialized, “stand in front of a church flashing a Bible like a gang sign to get conservative Christians in line.”

Those inclined to defend Trump, however, chose to focus on a specific detail in the media’s reporting of the incident: reporters’ use of the term “tear gas” in their descriptions of how the protesters were pushed back by authorities.

Media pro-Trumpers like The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway led the charge, insisting that tear gas was never used, and that the media was spreading “fake news.” Trump himself retweeted the piece and others like it, and soon that’s all anyone was talking about.

There’s just one problem: pepper spray (which the USPP admits they used on the crowd) is actually a form of tear gas (which is a colloquial term). Even if one is inclined to engage in a semantics battle over the type of eye-irritating chemical agents that were used against the crowd, that doesn’t change the fact that chemical agents were used against the crowd… to clear a path for a political photo op.

Of course, it’s not just the political right that employs this technique. But as I’ve written in the past, people on the left are far more inclined to commit an almost inverse offense: trivializing or even omitting important details of a story in order to bolster a much larger societal narrative that the facts themselves just don’t warrant. This too perverts our political discourse.

A good example came this week from NBC News and Vice News, where journalists tried to compare the killing of George Floyd to a transgender black man named Tony McDade who was shot and killed by police in Florida that same week.

The aim was clearly to shove the McDade shooting into the “Black Lives Matter” theme of police brutality, and callous police officers unjustly killing black suspects. The problem is that both outlets seriously downplayed, and in some cases entirely omitted, some key details of the incident:

  • McDade had just been released from prison
  • He killed his 21-year-old neighbor just 15 minutes before the confrontation with police
  • On Facebook earlier that day, he posted that he was planning to kill people, and then be killed himself to keep from going back to prison
  • He had a gun that he threatened the officer with, prior to being shot

These are details that obviously matter, and should effectively disqualify comparisons to what happened to George Floyd.

Both of these partisan practices constitute an abuse of details that focus angst in a direction unsupported by the stories themselves. It’s done purely (and instinctively) out of internalized tribal interest, and it’s unhealthy to our political discourse, as well as our capacity to interpret issues rationally and with perspective. So, when people (especially politicians and members of the media) play this game, they should be called out.

But unfortunately, I’m not convinced that calling it out would serve as a deterrent. It’s become too natural of a response for far too many people. In other words, there are just too many Jerrys out there.


Was Russia’s Fake News as Negligible as a New Study Suggests?

Last week, Benedict Carey of the New York Times reported on a recent study (conducted by political scientists from three universities) that provides some insight into the effect that fabricated stories from phony news sites had on the 2016 election. The findings, derived in large part from the web-browser histories of over 2,500 adults, were interesting.

Some highlights:

  • One out of every four participants saw at least one false story in the four weeks prior to election-day.
  • 80% of the bogus articles on these sites favored Donald Trump.
  • The most conservative 10% of the study’s participants accounted for 65% of the visits to fake news sites.
  • Trump supporters were roughly three times more likely than Clinton supporters to visit phony news sites promoting their candidate.

At first glance, these results would appear to lend credence to the notion that fake news stories played a significant role in Trump’s election win.

But not so fast.

The study also revealed that even the most ambitious consumers of fabricated news absorbed far more real news (from online newspapers, network websites, etc.). Only six percent of the overall news consumption of Trump voters came from phony news sites. For Clinton voters, it was just one percent.

Personally, I’m not surprised by this. I’ve long believed that these sites did more damage culturally than electorally, sparking endless social-media arguments (many of them between friends and family), but not changing the voting preferences of all that many people. Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency because of a few hundred mock news sites. He won because his opponent was Hillary Clinton.

With that being said, I think the scope of the study falls short in its determination of how people consume online news. It’s a mistake to measure information consumption only by page visits (the act of actually opening a web-page in a browser). You also have to factor in that page’s social-media reach.

What do I mean by social-media reach? Let me give you an example.

Once the column you’re reading right now is published on, it will be shared by me on multiple social-media platforms. When that happens, the piece’s linked headline (along with a short excerpt from the piece) will appear on the Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines of people who follow me. Some of those people will click on the link to read the column. Some won’t. Either way, they will have seen the headline, thus my column will have reached them.

Now imagine, that I had used a differently worded headline — something that delivers a definitive, eye-opening (but demonstrably false) statement like this: “New Poll Shows Trump at 55% Approval”.

I guarantee that a lot of fervent Trump supporters would share a social-media post like that without bothering to click on the accompanying link. The same would be true for a number of liberal individuals, had the headline read: “Obamacare Has Cut National Debt by Trillions”.

Partisans who are active on the Internet tend to share messaging that confirms their political biases, often in a reflexive manner. Thus, false stories can (and regularly do) spread like wildfire in a very short period of time, without much regard to their legitimacy.

A powerful headline is often all it takes to make a story go viral. And during the 2016 election, Russian bots had a lot of help from American voters in advancing false information.

The significance of this drive-by method of news consumption (which wasn’t factored into the study described above) can not be underestimated, because it is ingrained in the culture of how we process information. If you don’t believe me, take some time to read the social media responses to legitimate news pieces — factual articles published by major news organizations. Most people are replying to the headlines (not the actual content of the articles), and many of those replies reveal quite clearly that the commenters did not, in fact, read the articles.  The same is true with opinion columns (believe me, I see it with my own work quite frequently).

Now, consider that during the 2016 election cycle, over 100 million people are estimated to have been presented with fake news (in one form or another) by Russian troll farms. And that was just through Facebook alone.

A true measure of Russia’s propagandist efforts, both in our election and our politics moving forward, must take into account multiple components: website content, social-media reach, paid advertising, troll accounts, etc. All are part of the formula, and all pose a potential threat to our electoral process.

Unfortunately, even if we gain a better grasp of the situation, and come to better understand the effects of these methods on the American psyche, addressing the problem comes with its own challenges — both logistically and philosophically.

I suppose that’s a topic for a future column.

Fake News and Fake Innocence

At a rally in Phoenix a few weeks ago, President Trump went rogue. He stopped reading his prepared remarks off the teleprompter and for 30 minutes went on a tirade, taking aim at his favorite target: journalists.

The crowd, of course, loved it.

But as I listened on television, I kept thinking that Donald Trump was reminding me of someone. But for a while, I couldn’t think of who it was. Then it hit me.

Donald Trump was sounding like Joe Pesci. Not the goofy Joe Pesci in Home Alone, but the Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

No, I’m not comparing Donald Trump to the gangster Pesci played in the movie. It’s just that there are times when Mr. Trump sounds more like a wise guy from Queens than a dignified man who occupies the Oval Office.

I was a journalist at CBS News for 28 years and during that time I witnessed liberal bias; I witnessed liberal elitism; and I witnessed a few mistakes. But I never saw anything resembling the fake news the president is constantly wailing about. I never saw any journalist just make something up out of nothing.

During his rant in Phoenix Mr. Trump said journalists attribute stories to unnamed sources that don’t exist. Sure, there have been a few bad apples over the years that made up quotes from non-existent sources. But that’s extremely rare.

To Donald Trump, fake news, more than likely, is simply news about him that he doesn’t like.

As for mistakes, there have been a few big ones since Mr. Trump became president. But they’ve been the result of flimsy reporting not a conspiracy to concoct make-believe facts to hurt the president – no matter what Donald Trump and his most passionate supporters believe.

In early June, the president’s favorite piñata, CNN, reported on its website that James Comey, the former FBI director, would contradict President Trump in testimony before Congress.  CNN said Comey would contest the president’s assertion that Comey had informed him three times that he was not under investigation.

CNN’s Gloria Borger repeated the assertion on the air.

CNN got the story wrong and issued a correction.

Then in late June, CNN reported that Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci had ties to a Russian investment fund that had attracted the attention of investigators in the United States Senate.

CNN wound up retracting the story. And three of the network’s top investigative reporters had to resign. As the New York Times reported: “The retracted story and ignominious exits of three prominent journalists was an embarrassing episode for CNN, particularly at a time when there was widespread mistrust in the media and Mr. Trump was regularly attacking the press.”

Breitbart called the story “very fake news” — and President Trump tweeted, “Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!’’

Not really. No one who knows how it works believes that the CNN journalists simply made up the story. But it’s undeniable that too many journalists don’t like anything about this president – and that can lead to mistakes that look like fake news.

Journalists, as I’ve noted before, are not good at looking inward. Introspection is not a strong suit, Circling the wagons is. So they don’t spend a lot of time examining their biases and how those biases affect the way they cover the news.

And so, if the president has an obligation to be fair in his criticism of the media – and not cavalierly throw the words “fake news” around the way he does – then journalists also have an obligation (as obvious as it may be): to be fair to the president even if they don’t like him.

While it’s true that President Trump deserves a lot of the criticism the press heaps on him, the press needs to acknowledge that too many reporters have such animosity for this president that it influences their journalism.

Here’s how Jonathan Tobin put it in National Review: “Since Trump took office, the willingness of journalists to mix opinion with news reporting has grown. Opposition to Trump and his policies is now seen as justifying any breech of the church–state divide between news and opinion. Any efforts to rein in this bias is denounced as buckling under to Trump’s intimidation even if those doing so are merely asking the press to play it straight rather than to signal their disgust and opposition to the president.”

In a free country like ours, people need to have confidence in the press; they need to know that reporters are honest brokers of information. They need to know that journalists are holding powerful people accountable — and not settling scores.

So, it would help if President Trump stopped delegitimizing the mainstream media; it would help if he would stop channeling Joe Pesci when he’s ranting about “fake news” and the press.

And it would also help if reporters acknowledged what a lot of news consumers have already figured out: that too often, too many journalists have abandoned the role of objective observers and taken on the role of anti-Trump activists.

Shouting fake news is no way to deal with a press Donald Trump doesn’t like. And proclaiming fake innocence is no way to deal with a president reporters don’t like.

Is Erosion of Public Trust the Goal?

rumorThere’s an episode of The Office entitled “The Rumor” in which the Michael Scott character (played by Steve Carell) is frustrated with never being made privy to the latest office gossip. Always desperate for inclusion in the personal lives of others, it drives him nuts that his subordinates refrain from sharing such information with him.

So, when Michael happens upon the secret that one of his employees is having an extramarital affair, he can barely contain his excitement. He smugly makes his way from one worker to the next, spreading the “rumor” and reveling in the wide-eyed reactions to his news. He admits to loving being the center of attention until one of his employees explains to him that such news, if it gets back to the cheater’s wife, could destroy that person’s family.

Stricken with guilt, and desperate to clean up the potential mess he has created, Michael decides that the only way to fix the situation is to spread a slew of other rumors about other people in the office — outrageously false ones. His hope is that when his subordinates compare notes, and recognize the ridiculousness of it all, they’ll decide that nothing they heard that day was the truth — including the real story about the affair.

The situation certainly made for some amusing sitcom material, but as my wife pointed out the first time we watched the episode, the strategy was actually pretty sound.

I mean, if applied to a similar real-world scenario, it could even actually work. Think about it: It’s very difficult to neutralize a consequential story once it has seeped its way into our public discourse. But by flooding the entire terrain with overwhelming doubt, everything becomes suspect. When nothing feels real, apathy sets it and we eventually tune it all out.

I’d say that someone should test this theory, but we’re already seeing it play out in our national politics just about every day. In an era where stories from propaganda websites fill up social media timelines, a biased news media continually creates politically-convenient narratives, and a U.S. president throws out baseless conspiracy theories at will, it’s harder and harder for much of the public to have faith in anything they see or hear.

Who needs Russia meddling in our elections when this culture of disinformation is continually being stoked domestically by people at the top-tiers of our leadership and national media?

Take President Trump’s ongoing campaign against “fake news” for example. Many of the president’s supporters insist that it is a righteous crusade against, as Trump puts it, “the enemy of the American people.” But if Trump had any interest at all in his countrymen getting the straight record on what’s going on in our nation, he wouldn’t routinely make up outlandish stories and present them to the public as fact. He would shoot down the nonsense, not try to one-up it.

Sure, the Trump faithful is always quick to explain to us that the president’s untruths are mere exaggerations or business-lingo, and that we should simply accept the idiosyncrasy, and not take what he says literally. But that logic has always been deeply flawed (especially considering the level of deception), and these days it’s downright obscene. The campaign is over. Trump is now the President of the United States. His words carry tremendous weight, and he knows this.

So why then does he continue to toss out substantial fabrications like the charge that President Obama ordered the tapping of his phones at Trump Towers? Does it help him politically? No. Does it expose the media’s very real biases? No. What it does is make “the swamp” even murkier. It compels the pro-Trump faction of the media to entertain and defend yet another unjustifiable narrative in its ongoing competition against the Left’s false premises and unproven charges (like Trump colluding with the Russian government during the election).

U.S. Senator Ben Sasse addressed the problem in an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier yesterday.

“We are going through a big civilization-warping crisis of public trust,” said Sasse, commenting on F.B.I. Director Comey’s testimony that there was no evidence to support Trump’s wire-tapping claims. He also blamed “the way we consume our media,” and added that we “don’t have a lot of shared facts in the country right now.”

Indeed, a shared set of facts should be a priority for anyone in a position of public trust, whether it’s elected leaders or members of the news media. Unfortunately, some of these people seem absolutely intent on preventing such a basic consensus from ever being achieved.

Whether the goal is an unenlightened and incurious citizenry, or the covering up of specific inconvenient truths, the direction we’re headed in is a post-reality America. And that’s not good for anyone who values our free society.

Broken Slate, a Sean Coleman Thriller

The Biggest Source of Fake News in America Is …

Many of us – no, make that most of us – have lost faith in important American institutions — which, and forgive me for stating the obvious, is not a good thing in a free country like ours.

A Gallup poll last June found that given a long list of institutions, Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in just three — the military, small business and the police.

Not doing so well was organized religion, the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, organized labor, and big business.

Congress came in dead last. Just 9 percent of respondents said they had a lot of confidence in the institution. I’m assuming more than a few blood relatives of senators and members of congress were counted in that 9 percent.

Then there’s the news media. According to a recent Gallup poll, “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”

We don’t even trust each other. A poll taken a month before the presidential election last year found that only 31 percent said, “most people can be trusted.”

As for the president, a USA Today poll conducted this month says that 47 percent of Americans approve of his job performance while 44 percent don’t.

“On personality, though, there is a broad and negative consensus,” according to the poll. “By 60 percent to 30 percent those polled disapprove of Trump’s temperament, and 59% say he tweets too often.”

The president has heard that before. But the tweeter-in-chief is unmoved. By tweeting, he believes, he can go over the heads of what he calls the fake news media and speak directly to the American people.

But even if he has enemies in the press — and he does! — the main source of fake news in America isn’t the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN. It’s the president himself. Let’s be kind and simply say he disseminates a lot of information that isn’t in the same zip code as the truth.

He doesn’t seem to grasp an important concept: The truth matters, especially when you’re the president. One day he’ll have to tell the nation something truly important – something that might require sacrifice from the American people. We need to believe what he says.

And the president’s latest unsubstantiated tweet alleging that he “just found out” that former President Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” just before the election is only the latest example of how this president shoots first and asks questions later.

Now he says he wants an investigation. Of what? To see if what he told us was true? This might be funny if he weren’t the most important person in the free world.

Instead of impulsively tweeting something he couldn’t prove, the president should have checked around before sending out his inflammatory message that put another well-deserved ding in his credibility. He could have asked the FBI chief what he knew. He could have done a whole bunch of things – but decided to do the one thing that caused him the most damage.

So what else is new?

President Trump didn’t start the fire. Trust in our institutions has been eroding for a while now. But his intemperate claim that Barack Obama bugged his offices during the presidential campaign only fuels the mistrust and ratchets up the already dangerous polarization in America.

So here’s an idea: Apologists who have defended Donald Trump no matter what he’s said and done, need to do him a favor. They need to take him aside and let him know that if he wants to be a successful president he has to start acting like a president and stop imitating Pinocchio. They need to tell him to figure out a way to control his impulse to fire back at every slight, real or imagined. And someone needs to shut down his Twitter account, for his own good.

And the Democrats need to grow up too. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi need to tell their hyper-partisan base, a base that won’t rest until Donald Trump is impeached, that it’s not going to happen; and that as supposed “leaders” they will no longer reflexively oppose every idea the president and his party have just to make angry progressives a little less angry. They need to make clear that acting on principle is one thing; partisan politics and obstructionism are something else. But delivering such a message would take courage, and that’s a commodity in short supply in Washington.

Both sides need a timeout. Milk and cookies will be provided.

I know, I’m dreaming.