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Why Political Journalists Can’t Take Criticism

Published with permission from Washington Monthly.

I get why Washington journalists respond to criticism in partisan fashion. When readers complained last week about a botched AP report, they were mostly supporters of Hillary Clinton. Naturally you’re upset, the reporter thinks. You don’t like news that reflects poorly on your preferred candidate.

By now, we know that report was wrong.

It claimed that half of private individuals who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state were also donors to the Clinton Foundation. But Clinton met with hundreds of people, public and private. Worse, the AP reporters used as their villain in a story of corruption a Nobel Prize-winning economist who’d known Clinton for more than 30 years.

This is old news, but the Washington media continues to disappoint. On NPR this morning, “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep asked Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake if he shares Clinton’s view on immigration. According to Trump, Inskeep said, his opponent favors “open borders” and “amnesty.”

This is an example of a statement that’s technically accurate, but entirely misleading. And dangerous. Yes, Trump has said, time and again, that Clinton wants “open borders” and “amnesty.” It’s also true that this claim exists only the realm of fantasy. Indeed, in an interview — just yesterday — NPR’s Mara Liasson told Inskeep those claims were false.

Journalists, I believe, are beholden to the truth. If they are unwilling to pay deference to the authority of the truth, even when that deference conflicts with the profession’s other guiding principles, there isn’t much point in being a journalist.

Again, I understand why reporters respond to criticisms in partisan fashion. It’s natural. Indeed, I was sympathetic to Business Insider’s Josh Barro when he quipped on Twitter that Clinton supporters are among the whiniest supporters.

But in this case, vocal complaints by Clinton supporters are not empty. They are based on something. They are based on demonstrable instances of journalistic malfeasance.

Journalists of Steve Inskeep’s high caliber say they privilege getting the facts right, as they should. But holding them accountable to those standards can be nearly impossible.

I got in touch with Inskeep on Twitter this morning to make him aware of his mistake. (I do not subscribe to the childish claim, as Glenn Greenwald does, that the American media is in the tank for one or the other candidate). It was an honest mistake. So I asked: Will you be offering a clarification?

I didn’t expect Inskeep to reply. When he did, it was not a good faith exchange between journalists about the concrete facts of the matter. He offered instead a series of bewildering deflections, obfuscations, and, to be frank, playing dumb.

Here is some what he said:

“The recording shows me noting that Trump claims his ‘opponents’ favor ‘open borders.’ I then ask Flake, a reformer, if he does.”

(Yes, we know this.)

“Nowhere was a false charge simply repeated unchecked.”

(Actually, that’s precisely what you did. You said as much.)

“Doesn’t asking a question allow someone to state their true position? Should we never ask?”

(Flake’s position is beside the point. The question was based on an NPR-reported falsehood. How about a clarification?)

This is Hannity’s technique interviewing Trump, whom he backs. But as a journalist I prefer to let Flake give evidence.

(I didn’t know what to say. The presumption here would seem to be that a politician is responsible for the truth.)

I know how it feels. I hate — just purely blindly hate — being called out for a mistake. Mistakes chip away at a journalist’s credibility. Credibility is a journalist’s lifeblood. Ideally, it would be better for the journalist never to be aware of it.

But that’s not the world we live in. Indeed, we live in a world in which a candidate for the presidency of the United States can give a policy speech on immigration based on the fever dreams of nativist-white nationalists, and the entire media apparatus does not report that it is unadulterated racism.

We need a better media.

We’ll see if that begins with a minor clarification.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a journalism fellow at Wesleyan, and US News & World Report contributing writer.

Photo: Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event with Vice-President Joe Biden in Scranton, Pennsylvania. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

How The Clinton Foundation Became A ‘Scandal’

Twenty years ago, James Fallows wrote an essay for The Atlantic called “Why Americans Hate the Media.” Fallows’ thesis was illustrated today by the political media’s coverage of the release of emails associated with Hillary Clinton while secretary of state.

His thesis was this: Instead of reporting the policy positions of candidates, and assessing their merits, the political press tends to abdicate its responsibilities in favor of reporting “politics.”

Put another way, instead of telling Americans the truth of the matter, anchored in observable reality and concrete fact, the political press tends to chase after “appearances,” “atmospherics,” and “optics.”

The outcome of this is the politicization of everything.

Let me explain.

The Washington Post yesterday reported that on three occasions Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin was contacted by donors to the Clinton Foundation asking for favors. The outcome of one was a meeting. The outcome of the others was nothing. That’s it.

More specifically, Doug Band, a chief executive at the Clinton Foundation, emailed Abedin about meeting with a Crown Prince of Bahrain. According to the Wall Street Journal, Abedin chided Band for not going through “proper channels.” After doing that, the prince got a meeting with Clinton. Nothing was reported of its substance.

Band contacted Abedin on behalf of U2’s Bono and sports executive Casey Wasserman, both foundation donors. Could Clinton help Bono promote an overseas charity event? “No clue,” Abedin said. Could Clinton help fast-track a visa for a British soccer player? Abedin said she had reservations. Band said never mind. No visa resulted.

That’s the story. In other words, there is no evidence from these emails to support claims by Judicial Watch, a right-wing group, or Donald Trump that the Clinton Foundation was rife with pay-for-play.

Yet our media isn’t saying this.

Instead, it is playing up Clinton’s “struggle” to figure out a way to “handle” the controversy and its challenging “optics.” Never mind that quid pro quo means something for something. In this case, the emails show the opposite–favors requested, favors denied.

Now, some are asking whether executives at the Clinton Foundation should be making these requests at all, and I think we can all say that no, they should not. If I can’t get an audience with the nation’s top diplomat, why should Bono just because he gave a lot of money?

But that’s how power works. We know this. We also know that very rich people often believe they are entitled to access to power by dint of being very rich. Like it or not, that’s the norm. In other words, rich people will ask for favors just as the sun rises in the east, sets in the west. The question is how do you deal with that ethically.

It turns out, pretty well. Thanks to a lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch to unseal these emails in an attempt to damage Clinton’s campaign, we know that Huma Abedin did a good job. As political blogger Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones noted:

“What’s really noteworthy about the most recent email releases is that they demonstrate a surprisingly high level of integrity from Hillary Clinton’s shop at Foggy Bottom. Huma Abedin was tasked with running interference on favor seekers, and she seems to have done exactly that.”

I don’t expect reporters to make such judgments, but I do expect them to do their jobs, which brings me back to Fallows’ classic essay. Americans expect the media to do something no one else can do: report what politicians say, but also assess and report the truth.

In the case of this so-called “scandal,” assess whether there is any merit to Trump’s assertion that the emails prove Clinton is for sale. If that’s true, the emails should show us. But they don’t. Indeed, they show the opposite, a team that’s surprisingly ethically aware.

But reporters covering the campaign are not saying that.

It gets worse.

When reporters abdicate their duties, they created an environment in which everything has the potential to be political, even the truth.

When reporters didn’t report, for instance, that Judicial Watch is indeed a right-wing group, it was left to Clinton’s campaign spokesman to say it. As soon as he did, he legitimized Judicial Watch’s toxic effort, because his remarks were seen as partisan.

When reporters didn’t conclude there was no basis to Republican claims that Clinton’s State Department was accessible to the highest bidder, it was left to a State Department spokesman to say it. As soon as Mark Toner uttered the words, he validated the accusation.

This story was a no brainer. All reporters had to say was say: Trump said blah blah blah, but it doesn’t look like there’s anything to it.

But they didn’t.

No wonder, as Fallows said, Americans hate the media.

Photo: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton tapes an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show in Los Angeles, California, August 22, 2016.  REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

When Police Brutality Goes Viral

One might find little reason to hope after seeing a video of a white police officer in suburban Dallas terrorizing a bunch of African-American high-schoolers at a pool party. It was the latest in a string of videos to reveal the gross misconduct and institutionalized bigotry among police officers that African-Americans routinely face. In light of yet more evidence, how could anyone hope for a future in which racism stopped being so destructive?

But there is reason, abundant reason, to hope.

Not too long ago, an episode in which a white cop manhandled an African-American girl and drew his sidearm on African-American boys would have boiled down to points of view: what the kids said happened and what the cops said happened. In past courts of law, as well as past courts of public opinion, deference was almost always paid to police officers, who, as we are reminded, lay their lives on the line every day in the name of duty.

That’s no longer the case.

The ubiquity of digital video cameras has worn down—in mere months—the monopoly on information, and high levels of public trust, that police departments have historically enjoyed. In years past, no one would have doubted that Michael Slager, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, was forced to kill a black man in self-defense. But thanks to video evidence, we know Slager shot Walter Scott in the back in cold blood. He was indicted by a grand jury on a murder charge on Monday.

Over the weekend, social media networks erupted in outrage after video emerged of a police officer in McKinney, Texas, slamming to the ground a black teenager calling out for her mama, and pointing his pistol at black teenage boys fleeing in terror. On Monday, McKinney’s police chief denounced Cpl. Eric Casebolt’s behavior as “indefensible” and launched an investigation. On Tuesday, Casebolt resigned in disgrace. Depending on the results of the investigation, he may face criminal charges.

There’s more good news.

Casebolt was responding to a report of a fight breaking out at the pool. The fight is alleged to have been started by two adult residents of the McKinney subdivision, a white man who is reported to have told the African-American students to go back to the ghetto, and a white woman who was video recorded punching one of the teenage girls in the head.

BuzzFeed reported that the man, Sean Toon, had slandered the students before later claiming that he feared the worst (he won media attention for holding up a sign thanking “McKinney PD for keeping us safe”). The Guardian newspaper this week revealed Toon’s criminal history of assault with a deadly weapon and torturing barnyard animals for kicks.

The Dallas Morning News, meanwhile, reported that the woman accused of starting the confrontation, Tracey Carver-Allbritton, had been furloughed by Corelogic, a financial data firm that contracts with Bank of America, because it was embarrassed by her behavior. It told The Dallas Morning News that it “does not condone violence, discrimination or harassment and takes conduct that is inconsistent with our values and expectations very seriously. … We have placed [Carver-Allbritton] on administrative leave while further investigations take place.”

Video evidence has unveiled to white Americans what is blindingly familiar to nonwhite Americans. With each revelation comes new levels of distrust, even among white Americans, who historically have little reason to suspect being suspected; and with each viral video comes a new opportunity to forge multiracial alliances to effect political change.

And that change is coming.

Since Michael Brown’s death last summer, criminal charges have been brought against cops in South Carolina, in Baltimore and, most recently, in Cleveland, where a judge on Thursday found that probable cause existed to charge two city police officers with murder and negligent homicide, respectively, in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

In less dramatic though no less important circumstances, a state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, brought perjury charges against four police officers who claimed reasonable suspicion in arresting a 23-year-old man on drug possession charge. Video evidence, however, contradicted their claims, infuriating a circuit court judge. “All officers lied on the stand today,” she said. “All their testimony was a lie.”

In responding to a disturbance, Cpl. Eric Casebolt made a decision. Confront the white adults bringing violence to black high-schoolers swimming in the community pool or confront the black high-schoolers. Casebolt, like many cops before, took the path of least resistance.

For someone in a position of power, someone accustomed to having a monopoly on information, someone whose public statements are rarely questioned, it’s plainly easier to push around a bunch of black kids, whose word does not carry as much weight as his, whose accusations of police brutality would scarcely raise an eyebrow in the court or the media.

Confronting black kids, even drawing a weapon on them, is much easier than confronting white adults about their rank and ugly racism. And in the past, there was nothing for a police officer to lose. Not so now.

Thanks to a video taken by a white boy shocked to witness such hostility toward his friends, there is much at stake. In this new age of ubiquitous video, cops should think twice before choosing the path of least resistance.

John Stoehr (@johnastoehr) is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter and Medium.

Lindsey Graham And ‘The Gay Conspiracy’

I’m going to mention briefly that the never-married senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), has been dogged for years by rumors that he’s gay, but that’s not the point of this article. It’s only the lede.

I don’t know if he’s gay; he has denied repeatedly that he is; and at this moment in American history, when gay marriage has entered new levels of normalcy, breathless inquiries into a senator’s sexuality ought to exceed everyone’s threshold for boredom.

My point is that there may be something more detrimental to his presidential aspirations (to be announced formally next month): the conspiracy theory based on the rumors.

Conspiracy theories aren’t like rumors. Rumors are based on ambiguities.

Conspiracy theories are much more.

As Arthur Goldwag, an authority on the politics of conspiracy theories, explained in The Washington Spectator, they are more like a religion. He wrote last year, “a kind of theology that turns on an absolute idea about the way things are — and on the immutable nature of the supposed enemy. … Paranoid conspiracism… proposes that some among us, whether Jewish bankers or heirs to ancient astronauts, owe their ultimate allegiance to Satan.”

That’s a key point — the enemy.

And you know who that is.

If Graham were gay — and we should take him at his word that he is not — that might offend some in the GOP’s evangelical wing, but a more serious problem is the suspicion that he’s in cahoots with “the enemy.” Why has he repeatedly joined the Democrats on immigration reform? Simple — “out of fear that the Democrats might otherwise expose his homosexuality,” according to 2010 a profile in The New York Times Magazine.

The Times’ profile echoed accusations by William Gheen, the head of the nativist PAC Americans for Legal Immigration, who had urged Graham to avoid being blackmailed into supporting immigration reform by outing himself. At a rally on April 17, 2010, he asked Graham to “tell people about your alternative lifestyle and your homosexuality.”

In an April 20, 2010 press release, Gheen elaborated: “I personally do not care about Graham’s private life, but in this situation his desire to keep this a secret may explain why he is doing a lot of political dirty work for others who have the power to reveal his secrets.” The entire episode might have been ignored but for Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert. He said Graham could easily prove his heterosexuality by releasing a sex tape.

Moreover, Graham is seeking his party’s nomination, as other Republican contenders are going to the wall in connecting homosexuality with unseen, dark, and malevolent forces. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) this week told the Christian Broadcasting Network: “We are at the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech, because today we’ve reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater.”

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), meanwhile, rails against a liberal fascist plan to impose a new gay-world order. “Today’s Democratic Party has decided there is no room for Christians,” he said at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering in April. “Today’s Democratic Party has become so radicalized for legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states that there is no longer any room for religious liberty.”

But conservatives need not fret.

Like John McCain, Graham might clash occasionally with Tea Party Republicans, but that’s style, not substance. Like every congressional Republican, Graham voted against the Affordable Care Act and virtually everything President Obama has asked for. Graham’s views on social issues are unfailingly partisan — he holds a hard line against abortion and opposes gay marriage and gays serving in the military. And his views on foreign affairs are uniformly doctrinaire, in keeping with the Republican Party’s orthodox view of American exceptionalism vis-à-vis military might.

Unlike Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who appear worried about being tied to the foreign policy failures of the George W. Bush administration, Graham is unrepentant about the Iraq War, telling CNN recently that the invasion was not mistake, that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein, and that if there’s anyone to blame for the current mess in the Middle East, it’s Obama.

Consider also the “conservative scores” assigned by special interest groups. In 2014, Americans for Prosperity, a PAC that bankrolls the Tea Party, gave Graham a lifetime score of 84 percent. In 2013, the American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime score of 88 percent. The Faith and Freedom Coalition and the Christian Coalition, both having enormous sway over the GOP’s evangelical Christian faction, gave him a score of 91 percent in 2014 and 100 percent in 2011, respectively. On taxes, he got 97 percent in 2010 from the National Taxpayers Union. And on business matters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave him a lifetime score of 84 percent in 2013. I could go on. And on.

I don’t think conservatives have to worry much about Graham with respect to immigration, either. True, he says he favors a pathway to citizenship, but the last major push for immigration reform in 2013 called for a pathway lasting some 10 years with numerous hurdles to overcome. Given the stringency of the provisions in that bipartisan Senate bill, I’m thinking Graham and his fellow neocons supported it because they knew few immigrants could finish the process. And if they never finish, they never vote. The result is a twofer for the GOP establishment: a decriminalized workforce that can provide cheap labor, but can’t support the Democrats.

As I said, Graham is a friend to the conservative base of the Republican Party. One need only set aside the ambiguities of gossip and paranoia to see him in his proper light. Of course, that’s not going to help. The people Graham needs are the people most hostile to evidence and fact. Indeed, given the role of gay conspiracies thus far in the 2016 cycle, the “confirmed bachelor” from South Carolina may embody the sum of all their fears.

John Stoehr (@johnastoehr) is a lecturer in political science at YaleFollow him on Twitter and Medium.

Photo: John Pemble via Flickr