a Wednesday, November 4th, 2020

How conservative media covered the 2020 election

I thought a majority of conservative media outlets would frame last night’s inconclusive voting results as a Trump victory. Instead, in some cases, they were even-handed.

Fox News called Arizona and Maine for Biden, ahead of CNN and MSNBC. This was a surprising and welcome development in a fractured media landscape characterized by polarized reporting and opinion. The Washington Examiner also provided fodder for this détente of sorts. Senior columnist Timothy Carney called Trump’s claims of voter fraud “unpresidential and bad.”

Others could not resist the tastiest sound bite from Trump’s speech—“frankly, we did win this election.” It allowed several conservative outlets to amplify the president’s dark interpretation of the voting results. Both WND and Big League Politics had prominent homepage stories featuring that unverified declaration. Aggressively pro-Trump writer Conrad Black asserted in his column for American Greatness that Trump “has probably won.”

Neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer agreed with him. Ominously, its editor, Andrew Anglin, wrote: “Trump is ready to take whatever actions are necessary to ensure that our country is not stolen from us. We are going to win. You may be called upon to help the president.”

Meanwhile, the Daily Caller’s White House correspondent Christian Datoc spent the evening inside the White House to report on Trump’s election night party. We learned that guests dined on hamburgers, french fries, and pigs in a blanket. Few wore masks. (We can only dream of what Hunter Thompson might have written in such a target-rich environment.)

There was one area of clear agreement between media outlets on the right and those on the left. Everyone despaired of polling. It was the night’s only clear loser, so far.

a Wednesday, November 4th, 2020

CNN public editor: We must learn to reflect a polarized nation

CNN, like many other cable news networks, has still not found a way to account for the fact that we’re an incredibly polarized nation. And the big picture of its election coverage was that, as a result, it failed to represent what was happening.

There was huge turnout. The conventional wisdom was that they were turning out for Biden. Which they did. But they were also turning out for Trump. And perhaps we didn’t realize that in part because of the divisive tone that CNN insists on striking.

Trump supporters have been stigmatized to the point that it’s not surprising that they might not be honest with pollsters or journalists. And pollsters and journalists have no way to account for that.

The answer to that is not more balanced coverage, to favor one party or the other. It’s fuller coverage, so that voters are better informed. And more than anything the tone has to be tempered so we’re not living in parallel universes.

a Wednesday, November 4th, 2020

MSNBC public editor: Glib certainties give way to queasiness

MSNBC’s Election Day spectacle was exactly what one expected at first, with giggling extra-coiffed stars fawning over one another. But the familiar scene soon began to darken, giving rise to an indescribably creepy sensation of déjà vu as the day wore on.

What had begun as cheerily confident talking-head banter, fueled by Biden’s commanding polling leads, gave way to queasiness and dread. Rosy dreams of an early landslide, of expanding the Democratic advantage in the House and of retaking the Senate—of sleeping—evaporated in favor of a long, painful tally that, though it could end in a Biden presidency, flew in the face of weeks of MSNBC’s glib votesplaining.

Then, at 2:30am, the former television personality who somehow became the president of the United States got in front of the cameras and ranted and raved to a soul-racked nation that he’d already won the election, and demanded that the counting of votes must stop (except in Arizona, where Biden was ahead).

Brian Williams cut in to the speech to point out that no, this was a lie, the election was still ongoing, that nobody had won it yet; but the damage was already done, and on so many levels. MSNBC’s hosts have been careful to point out that Trump’s many threats to claim election fraud and mount court challenges were dangerous, unlawful, and/or untrue. But still the overall tone of their coverage retained a tang of the same breezy, Lincoln Project–style contempt that doomed Hillary “Deplorables” Clinton in 2016.

Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, and Rachel Maddow love tittering at Trump’s vulgarity. But by trivializing and mocking him they have enlightened no one; instead of taking his demagoguery with the requisite seriousness, they’ve given a rich supply of oxygen to his supporters’ sense of victimization.

Possibly the most painful irony is that Wallace was actively involved in the 2000 recount that ended in George W. Bush’s theft of the presidency from Al Gore, through a bogus Supreme Court decision that involved suspending the counting of votes. I can’t help wondering what she thought on hearing Trump openly announce an intention to try the same himself. Even more, I wonder what she thought of the news that 93 percent of registered Republicans voted for Trump in this election, rather than the mere 90 percent who voted for him last time. Such is the influence of Never Trumpers like her on the conscience of their peers.

Perhaps most significantly, Facebook seems to have broken its own rules on limiting political coverage: a secret tsunami of alternative facts whose potential effects on voters were consistently ignored or underplayed by corporate media outlets like MSNBC.

Watching the shipwreck of MSNBC’s election coverage, it’s become increasingly clear that traditional news media and cable news in particular are utterly unequal to the challenge presented by a digital information landscape whose complexity and power have completely swamped their ability to produce meaningful, accurate analysis. It’s time for viewers, for citizens, to demand a complete revamping of this broken system.

a Friday, October 16th, 2020

Facebook, Twitter, and what news is fit to share

On Wednesday, both Facebook and Twitter took steps to limit the distribution of a news story from a mainstream publication, on the grounds that it was based on hacked emails and of questionable accuracy. Twitter actually prevented users from posting a link to the story, and in some cases prevented users from clicking on existing links to it, instead showing them a warning with a message saying the story violated the company’s terms of service. Facebook didn’t stop anyone from posting a link to the story, but reduced its reach by tweaking the News Feed algorithm so fewer users would see it.

The story was a New York Post report alleging that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, introduced his father to the head of a natural gas company in the Ukraine. The source? Emails allegedly retrieved from Hunter Biden’s laptop by a computer repair shop and given to Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. In Twitter’s case, the company argued that the story breached its policy against distribution of content obtained through hacking, and said documents included with the story also contained an individual’s identifying information, which is against privacy rules. Facebook, meanwhile, said its position against “hack and leak” operations required it to reduce the distribution of the story while it was being fact-checked by third-party partners.

Unsurprisingly, these moves triggered an avalanche of censorship accusations from conservatives. Sen. Josh Hawley went so far as to argue in a letter to the Federal Election Commission that removing the story was a benefit to Biden, and therefore amounted to a campaign finance violation, and said the Judiciary Committee will vote on whether to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to explain his actions. Others, including Sen. Ted Cruz, argued that Facebook and Twitter had breached the First Amendment. Rep. Doug Collins said that the blocks were “a grave threat to our democracy.” 

Such arguments ignore the fact Facebook and Twitter are protected by the First Amendment, and also by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows them to make content-moderation decisions without penalty. Many of the arguments are also clearly being made in bad faith, and are a variation on the “platforms censor conservatives” canard that has been rattling around Congress for years without a shred of evidence. 

At the same time, however, it’s true that the decisions made by the two platforms are problematic. For instance, Twitter’s policy not to allow users to post “content published without authorization” is extremely vague, and could theoretically block not just questionable stories from the New York Post, but also valuable investigative stories based on leaked content, including the Pentagon Papers and virtually everything from WikiLeaks. (Late Thursday, the company said it has revised its policy, and will now apply labels instead of blocking users from posting links that refer to hacked material.)

The incident also highlights a broader problem with both platforms, and that is a lack of detail about their policies, and how and when they are implemented. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that the company didn’t do a good job of explaining itself when it first blocked the Post story, but the followup wasn’t that helpful; while it said the story violated multiple policies, it didn’t contain a lot of detail about either one. Facebook, meanwhile, has a habit of just pointing to its algorithm as though it absolves the company of any need to explain itself, and routinely promises things that never come to pass.

“There will be battles for control of the narrative again and again over the coming weeks,” Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, told the New York Times. “The way the platforms handled it is not a good harbinger of what’s to come.”

This episode is not only infuriating for those who would like some clarity on the decision-making at these platforms, but it makes it that much easier for bad faith actors to argue that the companies are doing something unsavory or illegal, which leads to show trial-style hearings that often amount to a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little. If we are to trust these giant tech corporations to make decisions around what kind of journalism can be shared on their networks, we’re going to need a lot more transparency and a lot less hand waving.

a Friday, October 2nd, 2020

Disbelief and Trump’s diagnosis

In the spring of 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower told an elaborate lie. An American U-2 plane, part of a CIA mission to spy on the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile program, was detected by Russian officers and brought down near the town of Sverdlovsk (known today as Yekaterinburg). The fate of the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was unknown. He was presumed dead. (CIA pilots carried poison pills.) The administration fed a story to the press, by way of a nasa statement, printed in full in the New York Times on Friday, May 6. The plane was “part of a continuing program to study gust meteorological conditions,” the statement read. The pilot “is a civilian employed by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.” A front-page article summarized the situation: “The plane was flying at an altitude of 55,000 feet, making weather observations over the Lake Van area of Turkey.” To assure reporters, the government disguised a U-2 plane with nasa markings and distributed photos. By Sunday, however, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, revealed (“jubilantly,” per the Times) that his agents had captured Powers, who would be tried for espionage in Moscow. 

Soon, Eisenhower’s presidency was over, and an increasing number of Americans lost faith in things that once felt sure: the trustworthiness of the White House, for one, as well as the press. In the decades since, journalists and public officials have negotiated a difficult relationship, rife with intrigue, problematic friendships, and outright distortion. Richard Nixon’s presidency gave us the problem of “the media,” as William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter, attested in Before the Fall (1975): “The press became ‘the media’ because the word had a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation.” That was before Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, and Q. It was also before Donald Trump popularized the phrase “fake news” and his favorite journalist-insult, “enemy of the people.” Trust in American institutions is down even more, these days; confidence in the press has dropped precipitously. Michael Schudson helpfully laid out the context in a piece last year for CJR on “The Fall, Rise, and Fall of Media Trust,” in which he asked the question: “Has a healthy skepticism become a civically disabling cynicism?”

The answer becomes important when news breaks and nobody knows what to think. In the early hours of Friday morning, Trump tweeted that he and his wife, Melania, had tested positive for covid-19; the press sprang awake, and restless sleepers began scrolling through the coverage. Much of it was speculative—the sort of stuff that might make your head hit the pillow until morning, awaiting something more concrete. Another response, voiced on Twitter, was disbelief—suggestions that Trump was faking an illness in order to elicit sympathy, disrupt the election, or reap some other twisted benefit. The comments came, in many cases, from respected journalists—even as their colleagues were posting links to their articles about Trump’s diagnosis. Jacob Weisberg—the cofounder, with Malcolm Gladwell, of the audio production company Pushkin Industries—chimed in, “When it comes to the President’s condition and prognosis, I’ll believe it when I hear it from Dr. Fauci.”

Still, there are realities, and they can be confirmed offline. It may take a few hours—a few years, even, if you count cultivating sources—but facts can be obtained, written about, and discussed.

The result was disorienting. Waking up, one received a mixed message—a contingent that typically stands up for journalism was arguing that the latest coverage was to be taken with a grain of salt; that, really, you can’t believe everything you read; that since Trump lies, stories about what he says are inherently suspect. The implicit assumption was that breaking-news reporting is sketchy and sourced primarily from Twitter. Which, yes, is sometimes true. Still, there are realities, and they can be confirmed offline. It may take a few hours—a few years, even, if you count cultivating sources—but facts can be obtained, written about, and discussed. That’s the premise of journalism, anyway—no less so when official sources of information, from the president on down, are mendacious. 

The Trump administration is so deeply mired in delusion that it can be difficult to engage with in any meaningful way. Politicians are always campaigning; Trump’s head is underwater in a swimming pool of Diet Coke–logic that’s being filled by Fox News. His most enthusiastic devotees are racist conspiracy theorists; his greatest challengers must, too, be armed with a willingness to believe that conspiracy is afoot. After all, under Eisenhower, nasa painted over a reconnaissance plane with a phony serial number; Trump World brings the possibility of plots far weirder. But that doesn’t mean we should be so overcome by doubt that coverage becomes moot. That’s exactly what Trump wants, isn’t it? He sows distrust and confusion—with the occasional help of Russian operatives—in order to throw us off and capitalize on the paralysis of our collective uncertainty.

Stories might be wrong, facts mistaken. Sincerity is all. In the lead-up to what may be the most important American election in over a century, reasoned reporting is essential. Skepticism and verification are part of the process, if done right. One hopes that the results have impact. They can’t if we’re all so wary—and so weary—that we undermine ourselves.