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 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

The Washington Post’s Latest Scoop

Nothing so warms as the heart as a good old journalistic screw-up, especially when the self-righteous watchdogs of democracy and unforgiving judges of other people’s failures in the most almighty media are forced to admit that they are also mere humans. We had a good chuckle, therefore, to hear about The Washington Post’s premature announcement that Vice President Joe Biden has entered the Democratic presidential race.
The story was quickly retracted, profusely apologized for, and we don’t for a moment believe there was any nefarious intent. There was a for-internal-use-only “slug” on top of the story and “XX” markings where information was apparently supposed to be updated, so it was clearly pre-written copy intended to be used in the event that Biden did announce his candidacy, and some unlucky Postman or another simply hit a “send” rather than a “save” button and inadvertently thus sent it out over the internet. Anyone who thinks that the mistake indicates some inside knowledge of a Biden candidacy should know the paper almost certainly has another story in its computer files about how Biden has announced he isn’t running, and that it could have just as easily been the one that was published by a click on the wrong button.

We have some sympathy for the accidental offender, as even our humble operation has occasionally clicked on the “publish” icon rather than the “saved” icon and thus sent out unfinished and un-headlined columns to those readers kind enough to “follow” us on their “mobile devices” or those who just happened drop by during the short interval before the article was finished and headlined, although we can proudly note that has only resulted in some momentary confusion and a chance to watch how our word craft is so carefully polished, and it has never obliged us to apologize that what we posted was completely untrue, even if it was slightly incoherent. During our long years of toil for the local newspaper we gave first-hand witness to some truly spectacular and thoroughly retracted journalistic screw-ups, too, and on one occasion long ago very early in our obituary-writing days it was entirely our fault, so we try not to be too judgmental or self-righteous about such things. Still, this error seems to have resulted from journalistic tendencies that can be easily corrected.
Almost of all of those spectacular and thoroughly retracted journalist screw-ups we witnessed first-hand resulted from some editor or another’s insistence that the truth be written up and published before it could possibly be known. On one still locally infamous occasion two of the local aircraft manufacturers were vying for a sizable military contract, and in a city where aviation is still the most significant component of the local economy the editors were very interested in the outcome of the competition, and the poor fellow on the aviation beat, who was a good reporter and a buddy of ours, was under intense pressure to announce the result before the government or any of the television stations did. He buckled under and went with his best sources and best guess, both of which turned out to be completely wrong, and the winning company paid for a full-page in the local media’s satirical “Gridiron” revue to show a photo-shopped Harry Truman holding up the local newspaper’s headline where “Dewey Beats Truman” used to be. Our friend’s career never recovered, the careers of the editors who insisted on reporting the news before it happened never suffered, and we see it happen all the time.
Editors seem all the more eager to publish the truth they prefer before it can possibly be known. Nearly every mass shooting, even the frequent ones that occur abroad, usually begin with editorial assumptions that soon require more inconspicuous retractions. Natural catastrophes and real unemployment rates during Republican administrations seem prone to inconspicuous retractions than during Democrat administrations, too, and we can’t count how many times the “Tea Party” has been inconspicuously retracted from stories. Pretty much all the coverage of the unpredictable Democratic and Republican presidential primaries has been unaccountably cocksure, and the watchdogs of democracy and unforgiving judges of other people’s faults seem as ever.
Not that we’re entirely averse to the time-honored newspaper practice of writing up two plausible alternative stories in advance, just in case you’re right enough to be able to get a few minutes ahead of the competition. Many election cycles ago we were relegated to some forgettable congressional race, and as our deeply buried dispatches warned it turned out to be a nail-biter. Foreseeing this we had written three stories, with lots of “XX” markings for last-minute-before-deadline information, and one proclaimed candidate “A” the victor and the other one candidate “B,” and the third apologizing that as of press time no victor was apparent, yet even 10 minutes before deadline our editor was demanding a submission. With the latest polling numbers showing a single-digit margin we agreed to hand in the third option, but she rather haughtily insisted we tell our readers the outcome whether we knew it or not. She wound up as a the big-time editor at a newspaper down south, which happened to be one of the last two-newspaper towns left in America and where her drunken-driving arrest was front page fodder for the competitor, and we’re proud to say we withheld our byline from any story that purported to tell the truth before it was known.
Those pre-written stories almost always need to be re-written, too. By the time Biden does or doesn’t get into the race the storyline will be much different, and will need to include Donald Trump’s latest “tweet,” and the who, what, where, when, and why of a couple day’s ago will seem incoherent by the time paper hits your front door step, and your best bet to spare you a spectacular journalistic scandal and complete retraction is that third option conceding that you really don’t know what the hell is going on. So long as you keep your computer files free of any more cocky files, you won’t have this kind of embarrassment. Besides, the presses run all night and you’re going to be on the doorsteps of your readers before they wake up, and after the electronic media have beat you to the wrong story, so take a little extra time to get it right.

— Bud Norman