The White House wages war on transparency: Iran edition

In the days since the US military killed Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s fêted top security official, Iran’s leaders have repeatedly threatened retaliation. Yesterday, they volleyed ballistic missiles at two bases that house US troops in Iraq. No casualties were reported. On Twitter, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said his country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” and insisted Iran does not want further escalation. President Trump, for his part, tweeted that “all is well!” Sources close to the president told Maggie Haberman, of the New York Times, that he’s looking for an “off-ramp” from the escalating tensions.

But who knows what to believe anymore? In recent days, even senior US officials have seemed unsure as to what their plan actually is. On Monday, things came to a head after an American general informed Iraq’s military of a planned US withdrawal from the country in a letter that leaked to the press. Mark Esper, the US defense secretary, and Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hurriedly assembled reporters, denied knowledge of the letter, and denounced its contents. They walked off, but Milley quickly returned with an update: the letter was “a draft,” he said, and should never have been sent. (“Here’s the bottom line,” he told reporters. “This was a mistake.”) Members of the press were scathing of the confusion. The military news site Task & Purpose called it a “monumental screw-up”; on MSNBC Monday night, Rachel Maddow said it was “absolutely mind-bending.” The letter was authentic, Maddow said, and yet Pentagon officials “tried to basically play it off like this was a goof, a fat-finger error—Oops, I meant to hit delete, and I hit forward!” Despite Milley’s clarification, the mess deepened yesterday. The government of Iraq—which has been clear that it wants foreign forces gone from its soil—said the US couldn’t just take the letter back. “It’s not like… a paper that fell out of the photocopier,” Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s acting prime minister, said on state TV.

ICYMI: Does the media capital of the world have news deserts?

At least Esper and Milley tried to keep reporters in the loop, to the extent that there was one. In the Trump era, the Pentagon has made a habit of keeping reporters in the dark—a worrying trend that’s often been overshadowed by worse behavior at the White House. Last May, CJR’s Andrew McCormick reported that the Department of Defense hadn’t given a formal on-camera briefing in a year, and that off-camera “gaggles” with reporters had decreased in frequency, too. (Former Pentagon officials told McCormick that its current press strategy is a dereliction of duty.) True to form, on Friday, as questions swirled in the aftermath of the Suleimani strike, there was no on-camera briefing. Paul Rieckhoff, who founded an organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, called that fact “a terrible, outrageous and unprecedented way of freezing out the press & keeping information from the American people. And from the families of our troops.”

Things have gotten a little better since then. Esper held an on-camera briefing yesterday. Over at the State Department, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State, did likewise. While State briefings have also thinned during the Trump presidency, the department has a slightly better transparency record than the Pentagon and the White House—and unlike some other officials, Pompeo, since his appointment, has appeared often on news shows that aren’t on Fox. (He toured all of the Sunday shows this past weekend.) Providing information, however, is a baseline requirement, and is not worthy of praise when much of the information is of questionable accuracy. As Aaron Blake, of the Washington Post, wrote yesterday, Pompeo has “a history replete with bending the facts to suit his boss, President Trump,” dating back to his previous job as CIA director. At his press conference yesterday, Pompeo chided reporters for obsessing over the claim—which he himself made, without publicly providing any evidence for it—that Suleimani was plotting an “imminent” attack on US interests. There’s still no evidence.

Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, also tried to deflect the imminence question yesterday: “I know a lot of people are questioning the intel,” she said. “That’s really unfortunate.” Grisham was talking on Fox News, which you may have guessed for yourself; she doesn’t do much talking anywhere else. Today is the 303rd day since the last on-camera White House press briefing; Grisham, who replaced Sarah Huckabee Sanders somewhere in the middle of that period, hasn’t held one at all. On Monday night, Anderson Cooper wrapped up his CNN show with a scathing monologue about Grisham: “Yes,” he said, “your taxpayer dollars are indeed paying Ms. Grisham to avoid you, ironically like it’s her job.” Cooper asked his viewers if they could pick Grisham out of a lineup. (It pictured Grisham next to the Republican politician Ronna McDaniel and Stefanie Powers, the actress from Hart to Hart.)

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It’s important to remember that the damage Grisham is doing is not merely passive; she often bashes the reporters she’s supposed to be providing with reliable information. Last night, after Iran’s strikes, she attacked CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Kaitlan Collins for “reporting” (scare quotes hers) that preparations were afoot for Trump to address the nation. This, Grisham said, was “never true”; Trump then announced he would make a statement to the nation this morning. CNN’s PR team said Grisham was “completely out of the loop in her own shop.” Grisham is not the only informational problem at the White House, of course. Yesterday, Britain’s Channel 4 News asked Kellyanne Conway about Trump’s stated threats to hit cultural sites in Iran, which would be a war crime. “Are you speaking in hypotheticals?” she snapped back. “I gotta deal in reality today.” (Yes, really.) Also yesterday, Trump met at the White House with a Saudi defense minister. The Saudis told us that, not the US—a fact that Jonathan Karl, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, called “disturbing.”

Incompetence, deceit, stonewalling, and malice are all very bad things in isolation. Mix them together and throw them into a fast-moving military crisis, and the consequences can be deadly. Iran’s strikes last night cost no lives, and both sides might back down, for now. But the potential for future escalation remains. This administration’s terrible record with the truth only heightens it.

Below, more on Trump and Iran:


Other notable stories:

  • Facebook moved to ban sophisticated “deepfake” videos from its platform—but it will continue to allow other forms of doctored video, the Post reports. The new policy would not have stopped deceptively edited footage of Nancy Pelosi going viral last year, nor a decontextualized clip of Joe Biden that circulated last week; yesterday, Biden’s campaign lashed out at the deepfakes policy, saying it doesn’t address how Facebook “is being used to spread disinformation, but rather how professionally that disinformation is created.” (Confusion spread yesterday as to whether politicians would still be allowed to post deepfakes; the answer is no, I think.) Elsewhere, the Times obtained a memo in which Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook executive, says he’s “desperate” for Trump to lose, but that Facebook should resist temptation to assist in that outcome. (Come for Bosworth’s memo; stay for the debate about his Lord of the Rings analogy.)
  • Last month, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association jointly sued to block a new law in California that limits news outlets’ ability to hire freelancers. (Tony Biasotti recapped the law for CJR.) This week, a judge confirmed that the law will continue to bind freelance journalists while the case is ongoing, denying the groups’ bid for a restraining order. A hearing is slated for March.
  • Also in California, the Downieville Mountain Messenger, the state’s oldest weekly paper, has been saved from impending closure, the LA Times’s Brittny Mejia reports; a local retiree bought the Messenger, and will seek to run it on a volunteer-led nonprofit basis. Another old California paper, the Martinez News-Gazette, is shuttering, after 161 years.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Sara Rafsky explores whether New York City is a “media mecca” or a “news desert.” Some neighborhoods, she writes, “get better coverage than others. In some cases, such limitations are dictated by physical distance; in others, by where the subscription and advertising dollars reside.”
  • Ahead of elections on Saturday, Taiwan is “awash in disinformation” and the Chinese state may well be to blame, Raymond Zhong writes for the Times. (A candidate aligned with Beijing is looking to unseat Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s anti-China president.) Residents have protested against China-friendly local outlets. Online propaganda is at work, too.
  • Major news organizations in the UK, Belgium, the US, and elsewhere have reported that Finland’s new prime minister, Sanna Marin, is planning to introduce a four-day working week—but she isn’t. According to News Now Finland, outlets mistakenly circulated comments Marin made before she took office as if they were current government policy.
  • A reckoning with child sexual abuse has sparked in France, where Vanessa Springora has called out Gabriel Matzneff, a writer, for seducing her when she was 14. For years, Matzneff wrote openly about sex with children, as newspapers including Le Monde defended such behavior as sexually liberating. The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi has more.
  • And Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the memoir Prozac Nation, has died. She was 52. The book “won praise for opening a dialogue about clinical depression and helped introduce an unsparing style of confessional writing that remains influential,” the Times reports.

ICYMI: Sleepwalking into 2020

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.