America, we have a problem. The moderator of the great public debate so vital to the functioning of a democracy has allowed itself to be compromised.
Yes, we’re talking about my good friends, and a few enemies, in the media who have been unable to contain their worst instincts in the pursuit of President-elect Donald Trump.
CNN, with the help of Buzzfeed.com, put itself in position to be accused of “fake news” on Wednesday at Trump’s first real press conference since the election. This is a move far beyond the constant yammering about the foibles of the “lamestream media” emanating from the mouth of pol-ebrity and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
This is the soon-to-be-president of the United States accusing one of the country’s largest news organizations of either making up the news or going along with news it knew to be made up. In fairness to CNN, Trump’s charge is inaccurate.
CNN wrote a very nuanced story about an intelligence report on Trump and Russia. CNN was careful to avoid accusing Trump of anything. But it did kick off a journalistic feeding frenzy the led Buzzfeed to post the entirety of a dossier allegedly written by a former British intelligent agent (although some internet trolls are now claiming credit for making the whole thing up) which appears to have formed keys parts of the intelligence report.
And CNN has reported fake news in the past.
Right here in Alaska, in fact, along with the rest of the national media, but more on that later. First let’s deal with some Trumpian realities.
A big, wild life
Is there dirt in the closest of the new president-elect?
Without a doubt. We can start with his distasteful “grab ’em by the pussy” reference to women.
Is there more dirt? Quite likely.
All of us – all of us – at some point in life do things we shouldn’t have done. The late Christopher Hitchens managed to find dirt in the closet of Mother Teresa.
Has Trump checked more boxes on the list than most? Probably.
He had more opportunities. He grew up in the lap of privilege. He could afford to get into trouble others couldn’t afford. One can only imagine the messes former President Bill Clinton – he of the “I didn’t inhale” pot – might have stumbled into if he had the money to live large while still young.
But what appears to be some of the worst of Trump’s behavior was out there before the election, and he was elected anyway. The voters obviously didn’t care.
Some, possibly many in the media, are unhappy about that. A lot of them wanted to see a woman as president.
Fair enough, but Hillary Clinton lost. And now, a lot of the media looks too much like it’s trying to get even.
Writing in The Intercept on Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald took to task both the Central Intelligence Agency and the mainstream media for engaging in “open warfare against the duly elected and already widely disliked president-elect, Donald Trump.”
He pointed out a few journalists accusing Trump of “treason” based on the unsubstantiated and suspect report that he was involved with the Russians in any number of ways.
“There is a real danger here that this maneuver can harshly backfire, to the great benefit of Trump and to the great detriment of those who want to oppose him,” Greenwald warned. “If any of the significant claims in this ‘dossier’ (smearing Trump) turn out to be provably false — such as (Trump adviser Michael) Cohen’s trip to Prague — many people will conclude, with Trump’s encouragement, that large media outlets (CNN and BuzzFeed) and anti-Trump factions inside the government (CIA) are deploying ‘Fake News’ to destroy him. In the eyes of many people, that will forever discredit — render impotent — future journalistic exposés that are based on actual, corroborated wrongdoing.”
The only fault in Greenwald’s observation is that it fell short of the mark. The media are already significantly discredited in the eyes of some because of the aforementioned feeling the media are, indeed, out to get the president-elect.
And that feeling is easy to understand given the radical transition from the journalistic kid-glove treatment of President Barack Obama to the iron-fist assault on Trump.
Alaskans should know better than anyone about the Obama treatment.
When the President came to Alaska in September 2015, CNN and everyone else was happy to play along with a charade that had Obama chowing down on a salmon “half-eaten by a bear” before reality TV star Bear Grylls found it along a riverbank.
“Now this is for real,” Grylls insisted. “I found this on a river bank.”
Sure you did.
The reality is that the fish was obtained from a Seward, Alaska fish processor because the Secret Service doesn’t let the President of the United States eat just anything. Even if the press had failed to track the fish back to its source – as a couple Alaska reporters did only to be told by their editors that this news wasn’t a legitimate story because the fake news story was tastier – it wouldn’t have taken much sleuthing to figure out something was fishy.
“…It is known the Service goes to great lengths to scrutinise the source and the preparation of food served to US presidents whenever they eat out of the White House to ensure it is not tampered with,” Snopes.com reported in March 2013 after the Daily Caller revealed Obama’s refusal to enjoy a lunch with Senate Republicans because his food taster was not there.
Interestingly enough, seafood – Maine lobster – was in that case on the menu.
“He looked longingly at it,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins told the Caller. “He honestly did look longingly at it, but apparently he has to have essentially a taster, and I pointed out to him that we were all tasters for him, that if the food had been poisoned all of us would have keeled over so, but he did look longingly at it and he remarked that we have far better food than the Democrats do, and I said that was because I was hosting.”
Despite this history, not a single reporter covering Obama’s Alaska visit even bothered to mention how strange it would be for the Secret Service to allow the President to dine on a salmon found dead along a river bank, whether supposedly killed by a bear or not.
Apparently, fake news is OK if all of the media agree to play along with the make-believe.
A popular president
Obama, despite his efforts to control the media, was a smart and likeable guy. Even when he made life difficult for reporters, most reporters never stopped treating him like they wanted to be buds. Presidential contender Clinton, as in Hillary, way back in 2008 accused the media of handling Obama with kid gloves.
Reporters did later toughen up, at least a little. But Obama was never subject to the sort of down-and-dirty coverage now raining on Trump. Obama had the whole media in his hands.
Politico.com, not exactly a bastion of conservatives, in 2013 ran a story with a headline that referred to the media and Obama this way: “Obama, the puppet master”
“President Barack Obama is a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House,” wrote reporters Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen.
“Not for the reason that conservatives suspect: namely, that a liberal press willingly and eagerly allows itself to get manipulated. Instead, the mastery mostly flows from a White House that has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.”
The first sentence there may or may not be true. The second is absolutely true, and it worth noting to whom those staged leaks and friendly interviews go: Friends. It’s pretty easy to make puppets of folks who agree with you or are willing to act like they agree with you in order to advance their careers.
“The White House gets away with stuff I would never have dreamed of doing,” former (President Bill) Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry told Politico. “When I talk to White House reporters now, they say it’s really tough to do business with people who don’t see the need to be cooperative.”
Maybe if those reporters had shown some courage and manned (or womanned) up it would have been different, but until Trump came along most of journalism seemed happy to be taken along on an Obama magic-carpet ride.
Anyone who watched coverage of Obama’s Alaska Global Warming Tour in 2015 knows. That wasn’t journalism; it was propaganda.
“Obama Makes Urgent Appeal in Alaska for Climate Change Action,” headlined the New York Times in a story that made no mention of the real and biggest problem facing the 49th state – the economy. It really doesn’t matter what the climate of Alaska 50 years from now, or even 10, if a lack of work has forced everyone to move elsewhere.
Reporting on Obama’s Alaska tour could only be described as “fawning” and hardly a reporter spoke up. Hannah Colton, a public radio reporter in Dillingham, was among the few to cast a little light on how staged the whole affair.
“No one would be drying their fish on Kanakanak Beach, in the rain, in September” in Bristol Bay, she said. There was others in the media pool who knew that. They didn’t report it.
Because of that, the Obama tour wasn’t reality; it was a reality show.
And the reporters played along.
Dump on Trump
Reporters and editors are not playing along now. Forget any idea of a traditional presidential honeymoon period. Trump hasn’t even been sworn in, and most of the media has swung to the opposite extreme from Obama.
This glaring contrast makes all of journalism look bad whether people recognize it or simply sense it. And in a country where the opinion of the profession is already low, that’s about the last thing journalism needs. Journalists have more to lose here than Trump.
As Greenwald so accurately observes, “there is no bigger favor that Trump opponents can do for him than attacking him with such lowly, shabby, obvious shams, recruiting large media outlets to lead the way. When it comes time to expose actual Trump corruption and criminality, who is going to believe the people and institutions who have demonstrated they are willing to endorse any assertions no matter how factually baseless, who deploy any journalistic tactic no matter how unreliable and removed from basic means of ensuring accuracy?”
Journalism is already on life support. It can be officially declared dead when the answer to Greenwald’s last question is “no one.”
We’re creeping ever closer to that answer. And the problem is way bigger than Buzz Feed, no matter journalists’ feeling of the moment about how wrong or how right the website was to publish an unverified report on Trump’s Russian connections compiled by an unidentified source who started out working for Trump opponents.
The problem is bigger even than Trump. Everywhere you go today, there is this suspicion – one commonality to both the right and the left – that stories get reported largely because the media either has some sort of agenda, or likes (or dislikes) the person making the news.
Journalism is rapidly approaching the point where the few, remaining fair-minded arbiters of the facts are replaced by news partisans who provide only those facts which support their agenda.
Look, there would be nothing inherently wrong with what BuzzFeed did if that’s the way it worked all the time for all politicians. But that isn’t the way it works all the time for all politicians.
The media, for God sake, was afraid to call out Obama over engaging in a charade with a fish in Alaska. Do you really think they would have run with a Trumpesque Russian memo this suspect about him?
Of course not, and that’s the problem. The double standard leaves the appearance the media have tossed aside the old rules of the game and decided to go to war against the president-elect. That’s a war certain to leave both sides damaged and the average American wondering who to believe.