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Bannon Bows Out

That awful Steve Bannon fellow was back at the top of the news on Wednesday, but at least we can at long last hope it will be for the last time.
In case you haven’t been following President Donald Trump’s tawdry reality show, Bannon is the former Naval officer and Goldman Sachs executive and Hollywood investor who went from the “alt-right platform” of Breitbart.com news site to become Trump’s campaign “chief executive officer” and then the “chief political strategist” and National Security Council member for the Trump administration. He was largely credited for crafting the nationalist and populist platform that won Trump the presidency, or largely blamed for it depending on your political perspective, and he was also largely credited and blamed for holding Trump to his nationalist and populist promises after the election. This made him an enemy of the more traditional Republicans who somehow wound up in the administration, as well as the Democratic daughter and son-in-law of the president, and Bannon’s prominence clearly an annoyed a president who prefers all the attention be focused on himself, so a while back he was predictably defenestrated.
He continued to converse frequently with the president, who still said nice things about him, and in his reassumed editorship of Brietbart.com he continued to propagate the more nationalist and populist elements of Trump’s presidency. With financial backing from a billionaire family he threatened to run primary challengers against any Republican congress member who wasn’t sufficiently loyal to Trump, and thus establish a brand new Grand Old Party along nationalist and populist lines. One of his early efforts included his full throated support of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who had twice been kicked off the state’s Supreme Court for defying federal court authority and professed antebellum opinions about slavery and women’s suffrage and homosexuality and was clearly an unusually lousy candidate even before credible accusations arouse that he’d sexually preyed on underaged girls surfaced, and when Moore somehow lost a senate seat in Alabama of all places that should have been the last we ever heard of Bannon.
It probably would have been, but a reporter named Michael Wolff has a soon-to-be-published booked called “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” and the excerpts that have been run in New York Magazine are already dominating a still-slow post-holiday news cycle. The excerpts paint a picture of a dysfunctional and infighting administration presided over by an inept and immature president, and for the moment the media mostly seem interested in the quotes attributed to Bannon. Among other things, Bannon called Donald Trump Jr.’s by-now admitted meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirty of Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton not only stupid but “treasonous,” added some similarly and by now familiar disparagements of Trump son-in-law Jarden Kushner, and seems to suggest that the investigations into Trump’s relationship with Russia isn’t a witch hunt. There was no way to keep that off the top of the news.
Trump promptly responded with a statement that “Steve Bannon has nothing to with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” The statement went on to blame Bannon for Moore’s loss in the Alabama senate race, allege that Bannon had long leaked damaging information to the hated mainstream media, and dismissed Wolff’s book as fake news.
All of which is at least partly true, but none of which is at all helpful. Bannon has indeed clearly lost his mind, but that happened long before Trump made him his campaign’s “chief executive officer” and his administration’s “chief political strategist,” so it’s far too late to lie he had nothing to do with Trump or his presidency. Trump did give a half-hearted endorsement of Moore’s establishment primary opponent, telling a rally crowd that “I might be wrong,” but he did wind up more fully endorsing Bannon’s crackpot anti-establishment candidate even after the credible allegations of creepy behavior toward underage girls, and they both share in the blame for that debacle. Bannon almost certainly was one of the frequent unnamed sources that the hated mainstream media cited, but by alleging that Trump concedes it wasn’t all “fake news.” Wolff’s book is bound to include some errors, too, but it’s bound to include some verifiable bombshells and with Trump’s unwitting help looks to be a huge best-seller.
At least Trump seems to be finally rid of Bannon, and perhaps so are the rest of us. All those nationalists and populists who rooted for Trump will continue to do so, all those newfangled liberals and the more old-fashioned sorts of conservatives who loathed Bannon will continue to loathe Trump, and Bannon seems left without any support except maybe that billionaire family of right-wing kooks. He never was an appealing character in the Trump reality show, even in the public-loves-to-hate-’em sort of way as Omarosa Manigault or Anthony Scaramucci or various other grotesque cast members, and we’re hopeful he’ll soon be consigned to the dreary sort of anonymous life one can buy with Goldman Sachs and Hollywood and Trump money.
Trump is still stuck with the worst of the populist and nationalist platform he ran on, however, and it’s not yet known if Bannon’s promise to burn down the Republican establishment will eventually be kept.

— Bud Norman

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News and Fake News and What’s in Between

The long war between President Donald Trump and certain members of the news media has lately escalated, and from our perspective on the sidelines we can’t see anyone coming out a winner.
Trump’s tormentors at the Cable News Network took a hard hit this week when they were obliged to retract a story that tied longtime Trump business associate Anthony Scaramucci to a federal investigation of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The story had only a single anonymous and other journalistic flaws that should have been obvious to the most cub reporter, proved to be utterly wrong, and can reasonably be attributed to the network’s unabashed zeal to air stories damaging to the Trump administration, so score one for Trump. Of course the president “tweeted” some about gloating about it, but of course he overplayed his hand by “tweeting” the non sequitur that everything else CNN and all of his other media tormentors have ever reported is therefor also wrong.
To its credit CNN did frankly acknowledge the error and retract the story, apologize profusely, then accept the resignations of three journalists including a Pulitzer Prize winner recently hired away from The New York Times. That inspires more confidence than Trump’s longstanding and clearly stated never-apologize-and-never-retract policy regarding his far more frequent statements that are anonymously sourced and utterly wrong, which a chastened CNN is for now not mentioning but has been widely remarked on in all those other Trump-tormenting media, and despite all the internet glee that CNN has been “destroyed” we expect they’ll stick around at least as long as Trump does.
CNN also got “stung” by the “sting” journalism of an independent filmmaker named James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas outfit, which caught a CNN producer on hidden camera describing his network’s coverage of the Russia thing with Trump and Russia with a barnyard epithet, but we expect that won’t prove much more than mosquito bite. O’Keefe is a protege of the late conservative provocateur Stephen Breitbart, who gave birth to the eponymous Breitbart.com internet news site where future Trump consigliere Stephen Bannon later became editor-in-chief, and although he once did a true public service by bringing down the notorious community-organizing racket called ACORN with a hilarious hidden camera video of them offering financial advice for his scam pimping business, he hasn’t scored any wins in a while. He was convicted of a felony for using a false identity to the infiltrate the offices of a Democratic Senator for some story or another, it turned out those hilariously over-the-top ’70s-blaxploitation pimp costumes he’d worn to the ACORN offices were an editing trick, and he’s generally engaged in the sort of journalistic trickery that no true conservative would tolerate if any of those Trump-tormenting outlets dared such a thing.
Still, Trump’s spokespeople in his administration and certain parts of the media tried to make the best of it. Official White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that she couldn’t vouch for the video’s accuracy but nonetheless urged everyone in the country to watch it, which strikes us as a damned odd thing for an official White House spokeswoman to say, and all the right-wing radio we heard on our drive time was endlessly replaying the video. After 36 years or more in the biz we think ourselves more savvy than most, so we don’t doubt the the tape’s accuracy but have to roll our eyes at its significance. As O’Keefe is obliged to admit, all he has here is one of countless CNN editors griping that his bureau’s stories aren’t getting as much airtime as as the Washington bureau’s stories, and although he’s the editor of the health bureau he’s based in Atlanta some reason and all those juicy and time-consuming stories about the health care debate also seem to be coming out of the Washington bureau, so his gripes are hardly newsworthy.
After 36 years or so of experience with various news organizations we can tell you there’s always someone swimming against the collective consensus, usually us, and we’ll score a point to CNN that they didn’t fire the guy and instead endorsed his right to a dissenting opinion. Back in our newspaper days we often butted heads with our executive editor, who had all sorts of crazy liberal notions, but we admired the way he butted heads with his corporate bosses, and he gave us the same respect he expected from his much higher-up bosses, and for the most part it kept us all honest.
There seems to be a stronger consensus at all those right wing talk radio shows and the rest of the Trump-friendly media, and we can’t say it’s serving them well. The formerly formidable Rush Limbaugh gloated that one of the fired CNN reporters as Thomas Frank, who had some years ago written a controversial and best-selling jeremiad called wither “What’s The Matter With Kansas” or “What’s Wrong With Kansas,” with Limbaugh not being quite sure, and later in his jeremiad against “fake news” had to retract and apologize for the inaccurate claim that it was the same Thomas Frank. Sean Hannity predicted the “collapse” of CNN based on the O’Keefe tape and the retraction about his friend Scaramucci, but his cable network is currently in third place, and has recently retracted that weird conspiracy theory he’d been touting about how the Russians had nothing to with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails. He also wondered why a White House press pass had been issued to a reporter who challenged Sanders’ “inflammatory” attacks on the press, describing him as a “contributor to Playboy,” even though the fellow is also the executive editor of two newspapers, and William F. Buckley was also once a contributor to Playboy, and he never griped that the nutcase conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose reputation has Trump has praised along with The National Enquirer, was also granted credentials.. We think Hannity could also do with some dissenting opinions at the morning news budget meetings.
Trump’s tormentors could do with some more of that, too. All of the media organizations we’ve dealt with over the past 36 years have had their biases, and although they rarely just made stuff up out of whole cloth almost every time they got things utterly wrong it was because of a collective zeal for a certain outcome. That tough old executive editor of ours had a particular dislike for nuclear energy, one of his more ambitious underlings obliged him by altering some documents to implicate a local energy corporation running a nuke up in the Flint Hills, and all the lesser mistakes we noticed over the years followed the same pattern. Our executive editor and his paper ultimately acknowledged the mistake and retracted the story, and apologized profusely, and the reporter wound up at a better gig at a bigger paper where he did an even more scandalously wrong story, and we always read the paper with confidence that it was unabashedly biased but not entirely fake.
These days we’re skeptical of both the president’s “tweets” and his tormentors latest scoops, and we’re carefully considering all the claims. Some are obviously wrong, others are hilariously spun, and none are at all encouraging.
Trump has proclaimed his media tormentors “the enemy of the people,” and on the campaign trail he threatened to “open up the libels” so he could be enriched by any negative coverage, and he recently “tweeted” another threat to impose an internet tax on the billionaire Washington Post publisher’s Amazon business in retaliation for the paper’s unfavorable coverage, and lately the war isn’t so much against certain segments as the media as it against the very notion of freedom of press. He and his media allies are railing against the disrespect for the presidency, as if Trump hadn’t alleged with unnamed that his Republican predecessor had lied the country to into a war and his Democratic predecessor was born outside the country and was a “bad (or sick) guy,” and all the outside-the-mainstream media have been unerringly accurate.
We hope that all those media and the freedom of the press somehow survive this. The right wing media have noted that several of the lawyers that the special counsel investigating the Russia thing with Trump and Russia were contributors to the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which is accurate even if the oft-stated claim that they’re all Clinton donors isn’t, and they don’t note that Trump was also a Clinton contributor, but that’s still information that should reported. Those lawyers were chosen by a special counsel who is a registered Republican and rose through three Republican administrations during his distinguished career, and were more likely chosen for their highly specialized expertise in eastern European organized rackets and money-laundering, so that’s also useful information those right wing radio talkers should be warning their audiences about. Any information from either side, so long as its true, is welcomed.
The glaring mistakes that have to be retracted and apologized for are almost always a result of zeal, which is why our lazy selves found few scoops for our tough old executive editor but had fewer retractions to apologize to him for, and what with all the zealousness going around these days we’re being very careful in our reading of the news.

— Bud Norman

Laid-back

There was an abundance of news on Monday, but two stories in particular caught our attention. Neither was at all surprising, and compared to a bench-sitting basketball player publicly declaring his homosexuality they might not seem very newsworthy, but the juxtaposition of two was fascinating nonetheless.
One was a report that President Barack Obama has thus far devoted twice as much time to golf and vacations than to meetings devoted to the economy. We spotted this at the cheekily conservative Breitbart.com web site, which was predictably indignant about the presidential schedule, and at Britain’s primly conservative The Telegraph, which seemed to find the president appallingly lazy even by British standards, but lest you suspect these right-wing muckrakers were making it up they both cited an analysis by the Government Accountability Office. The agency is famously non-partisan, which means they tend favor Democrats, and it made generous estimates of how long it takes for Obama to complete a round of golf and how much time he devotes to business while on vacation, so the muckrakers are likely understating their case.
The other item that caught our eye, appearing in Vanity Fair, took a decidedly different view. The glossy magazine for glossy readers, which recently hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner after-party for “Hollywood A-listers and Washington insiders,” ran a “photographic investigation of the ‘lean-back’ president.” A fawning introduction gripes that “Barack Obama receives ample flak from critics who say that he is too buttoned-up and reserved to thrive in an office that historically has required its fair share of cajoling, socializing, and even arm-twisting,” but insists that “Obama can, in fact, be remarkably laid-back.” We’re not sure who those critics are who lament Obama’s reserve and lack of haranguing, schmoozing, and Chicago-style political tactics, although they are probably to his left, but apparently even Brietbart.com and The Telegraph have already noticed that he can be laid-back. To further emphasize the point, however, Vanity Fair’s photographer shows us the president with his feet atop the Oval Office’s historic Resolute Desk, sitting tie-less with his advisers, more shots of the feet on the desk, and another shot with his feet on some non-descript coffee table, all of which invite the reader to marvel at very cool the president can be.
There’s something to be said for a laid-back personality, which is quite endearing in poets, musicians, and certain other occupations, but it’s not a quality that is necessarily well-suited to a president. When the president is spending more time on his golf game than the economy that is laying back a bit too far. On the other hand, with this particular president the less time he spends meddling in the economy the better.

— Bud Norman