Approaching Reality

Some things are misnamed. Reality television shows have little to do with reality. They place carefully chosen participants in a contrived situation, carefully planned for a limited range of specific outcomes. Yes, these are not actors, so that may make things “real” in some way, and these shows are unscripted – maybe – but they are edited in postproduction to fit the available broadcast time and to provide narrative flow. Random people, idly arguing about this and that – if they can even stay on topic – isn’t very interesting. There’s a set-up. There’s a pay-off. Someone is voted off the island. Someone is fired. Tune in next week.

This is an odd sort of entertainment, but incredibly cheap to produce. The networks make out like bandits – but this isn’t reality. Reality is messier, and harder, as Donald Trump has discovered. This is the first time one of our two major political parties has nominated a reality television star for president – a man with no political experience, having never held any public office, and with no knowledge of public policy or international relations or national security – and he may need an actual script. Reality television is amateurs faking it in tightly controlled situations. This is the real thing.

This has stumped the press. Do they cover Donald Trump as the usual candidate, discussing his policy ideas, developed over all the years – even if there’s nothing much there – or as an amusing amateur faking it? Do that and they’ll offend a lot of Republicans, the rabid base that loves this random disrupter, and the establishment Republicans who have resigned themselves to this scattered and unscripted guy, likely to say anything, because he did win their party’s nomination fair and square. To be fair, and safe, they’ve opted to pretend he’s just another candidate.

That may be a mistake, and Andrew Prokop note that they’ve just been called out on that:

During a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia on Tuesday, President Obama sharply criticized the media’s recent coverage of Donald Trump, saying journalists were creating false equivalence between Trump and Clinton while failing to hold Trump to task for various “disqualifying” statements he has made.

“Do you mind if I just vent for a second?” Obama asked. “I sure do get frustrated with the way this campaign is covered.”

The president argued that there are “serious issues at stake in this election, behind all the frivolous stuff that gets covered every day,” and that the media was creating false “equivalence” between Clinton and Trump.

He went on to argue that Clinton’s record on transparency and her conduct with her family foundation were far superior to Trump’s. “You wanna debate transparency? You’ve got one candidate in this race who’s released decades’ worth of her tax returns. The other candidate is the first in decades who refuses to release any at all,” Obama said.

And there’s more:

“You wanna debate foundations and charities? One candidate’s family foundation has saved countless lives around the world. The other candidate’s foundation took money other people gave to his charity and then bought a 6-foot-tall painting of himself. I mean, he had the taste not to go for the 10-foot version!”

Prokop:

The Trump Foundation did indeed spend $20,000 at a charity auction to purchase a painting of Trump, as the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold reported, but that’s really the tip of the iceberg here.

Prokop recommends Matt Yglesias on that and adds this:

Obama argued that Trump has said so many outrageous and untrue things for so long that the press has effectively given up on challenging him. He specifically cited Trump’s false claim that he opposed going to war in Iraq…

“Donald Trump says stuff every day that used to be considered as disqualifying for being president. And yet because he says it over and over again, the press just gives up and then you say, well, yeah, you know, okay. They did stuff – I was opposed to the war in Iraq. Well, actually, he wasn’t, but they just accept it.”

“The bottom line,” Obama said at the conclusion of this riff, “is that we cannot afford to suddenly treat this like a reality show. We can’t afford to act as if there’s some equivalence here.”

This is the real thing, and Politico adds this detail:

Speaking in the shadow of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps made famous by the movie “Rocky,” President Barack Obama scoffed at the notion of Donald Trump as the champion of the common man.

“Look, I keep on reading this analysis that, well, you know, Trump’s got support from, like, working folks. Really? Like, this is the guy you want to be championing working people?” the president said at a rally for Hillary Clinton. “This guy who spent 70 years on this Earth showing no concern for working people – this guy is suddenly going to be your champion? I mean he’s spent most of his life trying to stay as far away from working people as he could. And now this guy’s going to be the champion of working people? Huh?”

Again, this isn’t a (fake) reality show:

“What we’ve seen from the other side in this election, this isn’t Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. This isn’t even the vision of freedom that Ronald Reagan talked about,” he said. “This is a dark, pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other; we turn away from the rest of the world. They’re not offering serious solutions. They’re just fanning resentment and blame and anger and hate. And that is not the America we know. That’s not the America I know.”

Also unrecognizable to Republican leaders of the past, Obama said, would be Trump’s friendly tone towards Russia and specifically its president, Vladimir Putin. Of the Manhattan billionaire’s relationship with Putin, Obama said “he loves this guy,” and said the Russian president was “Donald Trump’s role model.”

“Can you imagine Ronald Reagan idolizing somebody like that?” Obama asked the crowd. “He saw America as a shining city on the hill. Donald Trump calls it a divided crime scene.”

Maybe it is time to get real:

The president also pilloried Trump’s recent interview with Larry King that aired on the Russian government-owned TV network RT America, where Obama said the GOP nominee sought to “talk down our military and to curry favor with Vladimir Putin.” Obama derided the praise Trump has lavished on Putin as “a strong leader” who has more adeptly led his own country than Obama has the U.S.

“The interviewer asks him well why do you support this guy? ‘He’s a strong guy. Look, he’s gotten an 82 percent poll rating.’ Well, yes, Saddam Hussein had a 90 percent poll rating,” Obama said, recalling in general terms praise that Trump has offered Putin in the past. “I mean, if you control the media and you’ve taken away everybody’s civil liberties and you jail dissidents, that’s what happens. The pollster calls you up and says ‘do you support the guy who if you don’t support him he might throw you in jail?’ You say ‘yes, I love that guy.'”

Forget that and try some reality:

Obama acknowledged that Clinton’s decades in the public eye have left her exposed to “what I believe is more unfair criticism than anybody out here,” but cautioned Americans, and especially young Americans, not to dismiss her as a relic of the past. He praised her for continuing to seek public office “even if we haven’t always appreciated her.”

“We are a young country, we are a restless country. We always like the new, shiny thing. I benefited from that when I was a candidate. And we take for granted sometimes what is steady and true. And Hillary Clinton’s steady and she is true,” the president said before urging voters to support Clinton by echoing a famous Teddy Roosevelt speech. “If you’re serious about our democracy then you’ve got to be with her. She’s in the arena and you can’t leave her in there by herself. You have to get in there with her.”

After all, this is serious stuff:

The hacker or hackers who claim to have broken into Democratic Party systems released more documents Tuesday, including what appeared to be the personal cell phone of vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine.

“Guccifer 2.0” released over 670 megabytes of documents at a cybersecurity conference in London Tuesday.

The work cell phone numbers, personal email addresses and personal cell phone numbers of top Obama White House officials were also included in the cache.

Kaine’s title on the spreadsheet of contacts is “Chairman’s Office” – which might mean that the document was created from 2009 to 2011, when Kaine was with the Democratic National Committee. The metadata shows that it was last modified on April 4, 2010.

It doesn’t appear any emails were included in the documents released.

But the DNC’s holiday card list for 2010, Federal Election Commission filings, early voter lists and a plan for redistricting were all in the dump.

Other files have to do with donor lists and technology updates for DNC-related apps.

Our intelligence officials and most cybersecurity experts suspect Russian involvement, and that leads back to Donald Trump:

The Democratic National Committee released a statement Tuesday condemning a new leak of its hacked documents and tying that hack to both Russia and Donald Trump.

Interim DNC Chair Donna Brazile charged in the statement that the only person to gain anything from these hacks would be Trump and his campaign. She also blasted his statements about cybercrime as “dangerous.”

“The DNC is the victim of a crime – an illegal cyberattack by Russian state-sponsored agents who seek to harm the Democratic Party and progressive groups in an effort to influence the presidential election,” the statement reads.

“There’s one person who stands to benefit from these criminal acts, and that’s Donald Trump. Not only has Trump embraced Putin, he publicly encouraged further Russian espionage to help his campaign. Like so many of the words Trump has uttered this election season, his statements encouraging cybercrime are dangerous, divisive, and unprecedented.”

But they do make great reality television, even if the press has decided they’re covering the usual president race with two roughly equivalent candidates, not a reality show on one side.

Brian Beutler addresses this problem:

Over the past three weeks, influential liberals have placed the issue of proportionality in political journalism at the center of a national debate. Joined by many conservatives, these liberals note that Donald Trump lies brazenly; lacks any identifiable grasp on the public policies he’ll be tasked with executing; and has been admonished by the Republican House speaker, among others, for racism. So why, they ask, aren’t these facts persistently dominating news coverage of this election? How can such dangerous matters be bumped beneath the fold of the front page, or to b- and c-block discussions on TV, by comparably minor developments like Hillary Clinton’s factually accurate observation that many Trump supporters are deplorable?

Journalists who are the targets of this criticism have responded with reflexive defensiveness of the work they’ve done, citing their real and solemn duty to scrutinize all major party presidential candidates, without fear or favor, but have largely ignored the central critique: Is it possible that political journalists will pave the way to a Trump presidency by underplaying the risks he poses to American democracy?

Do they point out the danger of this reality show star that could get us all killed? Should they? Beutler says things don’t work that way:

The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions – except when press freedoms and access are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.

That’s not a value-set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.

Even then, though, the press has no language for explicating which affronts to press freedom are more urgent and dangerous than others. All such affronts are generally lumped together in a way that makes it unclear whether the media thinks it is worse that Trump blacklists outlets and wants to sue journalists into penury or that Clinton doesn’t like holding press conferences.

In short, their interest isn’t the public interest:

The result is the evident skewing of editorial judgment we see in favor of stories where media interests are most at stake: where Clinton gets ceaseless scrutiny for conducting public business on a private email server; Trump gets sustained negative coverage for several weeks when his campaign manager allegedly batters a reporter; where Clinton appears to faint, but the story becomes about when it was appropriate for her to disclose her pneumonia diagnosis; where because of her illness, she and Trump will both be hounded about their medical records, and Trump will be further hounded for his tax returns – but where bombshell stories about the ways Trump used other people’s charity dollars for personal enrichment have a hard time breaking through.

They look out for themselves:

News outlets are less alarmed by the idea that Trump might run the government to boost his company’s bottom line, or that he might shred other constitutional rights, because those concerns don’t place press freedoms squarely in crosshairs. Controversies like his proposal to ban Muslim travel into the U.S. create a deportation force to expel millions of immigrants, and build a wall along the southern border are covered less as affronts to American values than as gauche ideas that might harm his poll numbers with minorities. Trump’s most damaging scandal may have been his two-week political fight with the Khan family, but even there, the fact that Trump attacked the Khans’ religious faith was of secondary interest to questions like whether attacking a Gold Star family of immigrants would offend veterans and non-whites who might otherwise have voted for him.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that when liberal intellectuals argue the press’ coverage of Trump and Clinton is out of whack, in ways that imperil the democracy itself, that members of the media don’t see a world-historical blind spot that must be urgently corrected. They see an attack on the trade itself – and reflexively rush to protect it.

That may explain a lot, but Paul Krugman is having none of it:

Brian Beutler argues that it’s about protecting the media’s own concerns, namely access. But I don’t think that works. It doesn’t explain why the Clinton emails were a never-ending story but the disappearance of millions of George W. Bush emails wasn’t, or for that matter Jeb Bush’s deletion of records; the revelation that Colin Powell did, indeed, offer HRC advice on how to have private email the way he did hasn’t even been reported by some major news organizations.

And I don’t see how the huffing and puffing about the Clinton Foundation – which “raised questions” but where the media were completely unwilling to accept the answers they found – fits into this at all.

No, it’s something special about Clinton Rules. I don’t really understand it. But it has the feeling of a high school clique bullying a nerdy classmate because it’s the cool thing to do.

It does feel like that – or Clinton will be booted off the island – but Jack Shafer defends the press:

The idea that reporters should aspire to a Zen-like equilibrium that gives all “stakeholders” a say in its shaping has become a tenet of the profession’s religion. The concept has become so engrained in our culture that those scamps at Fox News Channel have co-opted it with their ridiculous “fair and balanced” motto. Fox is many things, but fair and balanced is not one of them. But the sheer power of the words seems to paralyze people from laughing out loud when they hear it intoned on Fox.

But things don’t work that way:

A little bit of going-through-the-motions balance can be a harmless thing – you recognize it when you see it, the obligatory quote from the sure-to-be offended party that readers can easily ignore as they absorb the real thrust and import of what the reporter has uncovered. Some editors with a strong ethical commitment to balance have even told me there was no absolute need to publish the “other side’s” comments at all – sometimes, they explain, just making the call and listening to the news source is evidence enough that the reporting was balanced. Their point is that a news story is not a town hall in which every citizen gets to express his view. Rather, it is a distillation of what the reporter and editor decide is true.

But the reporting practice of collecting a pro forma denial or explanation isn’t what the current balance debate is about. The balance brigade phalanxed in front of Clinton wants to use its influence to deter stories about her emails and the Clinton Foundation, two subjects they accuse the press of having over-covered. They want to discourage any direct comparisons between her ethical conduct, her efforts at transparency, and the depth of her policy prescriptions with Trump’s. They would litigate every aspect of news story – length and placement of the story, adjectives used, frequency with which the news outlet reports on the topic, and more – with the goal (to paraphrase Boss Tweed) of “Stopping them damn stories!”

And on the other side there’s this:

Trump clearly believes anything negative or disapproving written about him is by definition unfair, an expression of reportorial bias. Unless the media flatters him – as Sean Hannity routinely does – he insists he’s being treated unjustly. Trump isn’t just “playing the ref,” attempting to influence a future call by making a contrived stink about the current one. By protesting almost everything written about him, Trump hopes to discredit anybody – press or political foe – who defies him.

What this comes down to is that no story about Trump’s unethical business practices, his lies about giving to charities, or his bizarre expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin – all legitimate news targets – can be, in his view, fair. Should such a story offer countervailing evidence that he loves his children or once paid a bill on time? Should it give equal time to Clinton’s offenses? That’s not how journalism works. Trump has proven himself to be a grifter, a liar, and Russian strongman’s sycophant, and there’s no way for a reporter delving into it to “balance” that equation.

Well, screw them both:

If you omit important facts that get in the way of your argument, readers will find you out and discount what you write and what your news outlet publishes. But a slavish devotion to balance – making sure every alpha who expresses an opinion in a piece is paired with a corresponding omega, or shrinking into a defensive ball every time a critic accuses you of over-covering a topic – is injurious to good journalism.

Reporters who are being hassled by Clintonoids for digging too deeply into Madame Secretary’s past, or Trump reporters who are feeling his wrath, should slough off the criticism and keep on doing what they’re doing. Creating a perfectly balanced story isn’t the same as creating a good story, an observation that should be pinned up in every newsroom. If you’re a reader and you’re worried about balance, your best resort is not making lame complaints but to expand your news diet. Balance may be necessary to the practice of journalism, but it will never be sufficient.

Digby (Heather Parton) isn’t so sure about that:

I know that covering Trump is extremely difficult for a straight reporter. He is unique in politics and flouts any rules that might apply. But their reaction to that is to turn their frustration away from him, since it’s confusing and difficult to understand, and demand satisfaction from his more traditional rival, who also happens to be the target of right-wing character assassins handing them an easy story line. They are doing a bad job at the wrong time.

It may be time for a reassessment:

Trump is not a politician. He’s something else. And the media needs to stop navel-gazing and recognize this. We’re seeing some of that from editorial boards and pundits who are usually pretty invested in the “both sides do it” narratives. But straight reporters (and I assume their editors) are letting the country down right now. This isn’t an ordinary election.

Everyone knows that. Callum Borchers certainly knows that:

As you probably know by now, Donald Trump plans to reveal the results of a recent medical exam Thursday on the “Dr. Oz Show,” which is a rather unorthodox way for a presidential candidate to make records public. But, hey, Trump is a former reality TV star. As long as all relevant health information comes out, who cares if it is presented in showbiz style?

The problem is that all relevant information might not come out. Based on the way Mehmet Oz is talking about his upcoming interview with the Republican presidential candidate, it sure sounds like we’re about to get an incomplete picture of Trump’s physical condition.

Borchers refers to this exchange between Oz and Fox News Radio host Brian Kilmeade:

KILMEADE: What if there are some embarrassing things on there?

OZ: Well, I bet you he won’t release them.

KILMEADE: Oh, it’s still going to be his decision?

OZ: It’s his decision. You know, I – the metaphor for me is it’s the doctor’s office, the studio. So I’m not going to ask him questions he doesn’t want to have answered.

Borchers:

So, to review, Oz says Trump will publicize only the good parts of his medical report and that the interview will not include any questions Trump would not want to answer.

There was always a public relations component to Trump’s pledge to release more medical information this week. He is obviously trying to appear more forthcoming – and healthier – than Hillary Clinton, who is taking a break from campaigning to recover from pneumonia, an illness she kept hidden for two days and disclosed only after it forced her to leave a 9/11 memorial service early.

But Trump’s appearance on Oz’s TV show now sounds like a pure PR stunt designed to hype the candidate’s fitness, regardless of what his physician might have found.

Borchers says this sounds like a total joke, but it’s just a carefully planned reality show with an entirely predictable outcome. Trump always fires someone. This time he’s declared healthy as a horse.

Of course there another element, which Hank Campbell at the American Council on Science and Health covers here:

This is a huge coup for Dr. Oz, whose ratings have plummeted since he got nationwide condemnation after four members of the American Council on Science and Health spearheaded last year’s campaign to get the doctor removed from the faculty of Columbia – due to his persistent promotion of miracle vegetables, his scaremongering, and his promotion of alternatives to legitimate science and health practices.

He was forced to hire a fact-checker (sort of, he snagged an anti-GMO zealot from Consumer’s Union, the parent of Consumer Reports), he put Dr. in small letters in the logo of his, to symbolically minimize the medical content of his show, and he has been scrambling to get back the 50 percent of the audience he lost due to the controversy.

And there’s the other side of the equation:

For Mr. Trump, it’s a no-lose proposition. It’s not like Dr. Oz can ask Mr. Trump any awkward questions about his statements on vaccines, since Oz has extolled both Joe Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on his show, and both of them are anti-vaccination zealots. In return for not looking hypocritical, Oz has said he will stick to softball issues. So we won’t see him scold Mr. Trump for having a diet plan that contains wisdom like eat in a “fantastic setting” when Dr. Oz has recommendations just as lacking in evidence.

Basically, Mr. Trump has found a way to turn the most mundane event in every previous election – medical records – into a media event. He has nothing to lose and a lot to gain, especially when his opposing candidate is being cloistered and trying to figure out which medical records to reveal. He hasn’t done anything original, it’s just medical records, but he is spinning it to seem like he is the one being transparent.

And Dr. Oz is playing along, hoping that he can rescue his floundering show from the brink of cancellation.

It’s a win-win situation, another contrived outcome like on any reality show, and thus has little to do with reality. So, how does the press cover this? They will take this very seriously of course.

That’s what Obama was mocking in Philadelphia, for all the good it will do. Those reality television shows have fooled everyone.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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