A Well-Informed Public

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government… whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” ~ Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789

That was a long time ago. Jefferson was arguing for both a robust public education system and a free press, and for freedom of speech in general – but the new Constitution had already guaranteed those last two things. This was just a bit of emphasis. A democracy just won’t work when the people who vote don’t know what the hell is going on, or more importantly, what shouldn’t be going on. Some sort of universal education, funded by the government, can help with that. A free press can help with that. Lively informed debate can help with that. That’ll fix everything.

Jefferson had no idea what would follow – the the Yellow Journalism of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, perfected by Rupert Murdoch in Australia and Britain – before he got respectable and bought the Times of London and then invented Fox News and then bought the Wall Street Journal – which was sensational without being informative. Some say that Fox News is still like that. Others don’t. Jefferson would probably shrug. There will be nonsense. No system is perfect.

Jefferson, however, couldn’t have imagined what happened when Woodrow Wilson was president. Suddenly, everyone had a radio, supplying entertainment and sports and eventually news. This was a free press too, without the printing press. That’s where people who vote would now find out what the hell was going on. FDR figured that out twenty years later. His “fireside chats” were masterful. He bypassed whatever the newspapers were saying. Americans sat by the radio, until they didn’t. It was television starting in the early fifties, the Eisenhower years. By the late fifties, and through the next decade or more, voters found out what the hell was going on by watching the half-hour early evening network news. Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America. People still read newspapers, and Time and Newsweek, but those had become supplements – where you went for supporting detail. Then the half-hour early evening network news shows started to die. It was cable news now, available twenty-four hours a day. Much of that was also sensational without being informative, but not all of it. It would do. Newspapers chugged along, but somehow they now seemed to exist to feed the cable news shows the raw material for their discussion, or outrage. “The New York Times is now reporting…” – it was that sort of thing.

Well-informed citizens watched CNN or Fox News or MSNBC to find out what the hell was going on, even if each of them told the same tale differently. At least it was the same tale. Everyone agreed on that.

Forget that. Everything changed again. FDR figured out radio. Donald Trump figured out Twitter. Tara Golshan explains here:

The president-elect took to Twitter Wednesday morning to set the record straight that the New York Times is a no-good, lying, dying newspaper, censuring the paper for its critical coverage of the Trump transition team’s progress. The Times reported disarray in the Trump camp earlier this week, detailing the firing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was heading the transition team, as well as a “purge” of national security advisers. Trump said the depiction was “totally wrong”…

Just a few minutes later, he tweeted about the Times again for publishing what he understood as a report that he was not speaking to foreign leaders. (“The Times never said Mr. Trump hadn’t spoken to foreign leaders. On the contrary, the report said that he had, but that some allies were having to reach him by calling the switchboard at Trump Tower,” the Times wrote in response to the tweets referencing its original story.)

The choice was to believe what was actually printed in the newspaper or what Trump said had been printed in the newspaper, but he’s a sensitive fellow:

That Trump still obsesses over his representation in the media shouldn’t be surprising given his behavior in the primary and general elections. He once paused an interview with the Washington Post five times to watch TV news. He has brought newspaper reporters onto the campaign stage to ridicule them. He has called journalists “lightweights” and “liars,” and prophesied the near demise of the Washington Post and the Times. The New York Times isn’t just the New York Times; it’s the “failing New York Times.”

He has his reality, they have theirs, but get used to that:

His latest series of tweets proves that his media bashing wasn’t just a function of his campaigning. Rather, since claiming his newest title as president-elect, Trump is still on Twitter whining about the media’s representation of him. He is still on Twitter, period.

And his temperament – though perhaps slightly more leashed – has not changed.

The pattern for this hasn’t changed either:

During the election, Trump claimed the press was swinging the race to Hillary Clinton. Now that he has won, he is claiming the press is misleading the public to his detriment.

Trump used the media to his advantage for much of the election – getting free airtime and dominating the news cycle with bombastic claims and extreme campaign rhetoric. He held press conferences often, at times even tricking the media into indirectly advertising his personal business ventures.

And when in disagreement with his portrayal in the mainstream media, he turns to his Twitter account.

That’s because that’s where his reality is:

Twitter has been Trump’s megaphone. Throughout the campaign he has cut off access to journalists too critical of the Trump campaign, vowing to never speak to them again (although his desire to be in headlines usually Trump’s these feuds). He revoked the press credentials of the Washington Post for being “phony” and “dishonest.” He has suggested he would do the same to the New York Times. He has targeted reporters in 140 characters, over and over again.

It has made journalists wary of how dedicated a Trump administration will be to transparent government. But it also speaks volumes to Trump’s quickness to lash out against any individual or organization that speaks critically of him.

The outgoing president worries about this:

President Barack Obama has given Trump a not-so-subtle warning about his temperament – that it may not suit him well in the White House.

“Whatever you bring to this office, this office has a habit of magnifying and pointing out, and hopefully you correct for it,” Obama said at a press conference Monday. “There are going to be certain elements to his temperament that are not going to serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects for them.”

Forget that too:

That doesn’t seem to be having much influence on Trump’s Twitter presence. According to Vox’s Ezra Klein, there is a good reason for that: “Trump did win, and he did it against all odds, in spite of all predictions, and by doing things everyone told him not to do. Reality has proven him, and his instincts, right.”

Use Twitter. Bypass the press. Win. That works, but Navneet Alang isn’t so sure of that:

As the 2016 election proved, social media is a deeply contradictory social force. It spreads vital information quickly and provides an unfiltered platform for suppressed voices, but also disseminates misinformation and creates information bubbles. Twitter’s particular contradiction is its pace and brevity, which lends itself to memes, wit, and breaking news but also breeds misunderstanding, acrimony, and outright hate. It is as much a tool for harassment as it is for solidarity.

Though Twitter is often informal, a president’s use of it – particularly the prickly Trump – may thus complicate the line between official and unofficial statements.

This is worrying. Leaders of nations have practical responsibilities, but also perform a symbolic function. It’s why the president’s reaction after a mass shooting, natural disaster, or act of terrorism is so important: Those words are meant to set the tone and tenor for the nation’s response. But given Trump’s history – such as his response to the Orlando nightclub massacre, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism” – his use of Twitter could foster a culture of bias and aggression.

It has. That’s already here, but this is refreshing:

In other circumstances, the transparency of a president who personally tweets might have been a revelation. As we saw in the leaked Hillary Clinton emails, messaging by most powerful politicians goes through layers of approval, and is finessed by many hands. The sharp edges are shaved away, leaving language that is often devoid of life. Trump has revolutionized political messaging through his use of Twitter, leveraging the platform to break through the fastidious, tightly scripted politicking that defines contemporary politics. It was vital to his image of authenticity, and no doubt many Americans voted for him as a way of rejecting today’s overly calculated political rhetoric.

The modern relationship between politics and mass media has produced a strange situation in which we all acknowledge there is a difference between the public discourse of politics and how it is practiced behind closed doors. We know that lofty campaign speeches bear no resemblance to the profanity-laden arguments in backrooms where power is truly exercised. Statements are crafted this way because of how they move through the media machine: often taken out of context, then used to reductively characterize position, moral character, and ideology. The public vacuity of modern politics is inseparable from its media corollary.

A president who took to a public platform to chip away at some of that disparity – even if it was just to relate personal, emotional statements rather than polished political narratives – might have helped the public believe that the government was acting out of a genuine interest to lead, rather than couching specific, ideological goals in a language meant to obscure them.

That’s cool, but this isn’t:

Instead of relief from empty campaign statements, though, we got a president who uses social media to enact revenge, spout conspiracy theories, and self-aggrandize. Donald Trump will likely reign as the Twitter President, and he will do so like the worst of Twitter itself – primed for outrage, and quick to react with only the barest amount of thought.

Thar’s a bit scary, as is the underlying premise, that the press is not only useless, but lying all the time. Jefferson argued that democracy might be impossible without a free press, and Jim Rutenberg is worried about that:

It was mid-June, and relations between Donald J. Trump and the news media had taken another dreadful turn. He had already vowed to change the libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists, and his personal insults were becoming more vicious. (One news correspondent was a “sleaze”; another was “third rate.”)

Most troubling was that he was keeping a blacklist of news organizations he was banning from his rallies, and it was growing.

I called him at the time, to see what this would look like in a Trump administration. Would he deny White House credentials to select reporters and news organizations?

No, he said. “There, I’m taking something away, where I’m representing the nation.”

So this was just campaigning. But he continued after he’d won. This calls for a change:

For their part, American newsrooms are conducting their own reassessments, vowing to do a better job covering the issues that animated his supporters, and acknowledging that Mr. Trump tapped into something in the national mood, the power of which they failed to grasp.

They now know they underestimate him again at their own peril.

They know what they’re dealing with now:

Few major political figures have had a more codependent and at times friendly relationship with the press than Mr. Trump. Before he stopped doing news briefings in the later phase of the campaign, he was shaping up to be the most accessible major-party nominee in modern history.

But displeasing him could have an intensely personal cost, which the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly vividly recalls in her new book, “Settle for More.”

Ms. Kelly, who became Mr. Trump’s leading television nemesis during the primary campaign, writes about how the candidate, unhappy with a segment she did in July 2015, threatened to unleash “my beautiful Twitter account against you.”

After enduring her tough questioning at the first presidential primary debate, he made good on his Twitter promise, which in turn led to death threats against her, she said. (“I would spend many days of the coming months accompanied by security,” she writes.) It didn’t help, she wrote, that Mr. Trump’s special counsel, Michael Cohen, recirculated a Trump supporter’s tweet that read “we can gut her.”

That was followed by what she took as another threat, from Mr. Trump’s campaign manager at the time, Corey Lewandowski. As Mr. Lewandowski unsuccessfully lobbied a senior Fox News executive to remove Ms. Kelly from the next Fox debate, she writes, he said he would hate to see her go through such a “rough couple of days” again.

Those are threats. Trump may want to shut down the free press:

Mr. Lewandowski had been the living embodiment of Mr. Trump’s aggressive approach to the press. He was, after all, arrested on charges that he manhandled the former Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields. (Prosecutors in Florida ultimately dropped the charges.)

After a paid stint at CNN, Mr. Lewandowski returned to the Trump fold last week, and could wind up in the administration or at the Republican Party headquarters.

Another member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, the Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, broke new ground this year by financing the “Hulk Hogan” lawsuit against Gawker, which resulted in Gawker’s bankruptcy and sale to Univision.

Though that was technically an invasion-of-privacy case, it was a model for what Mr. Trump has said he wants to see in opening up libel laws.

That’s a real worry now:

Most First Amendment lawyers agree that fundamentally changing the libel law would require a reversal of the landmark Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan. And while that might seem like a long shot, Laura R. Handman, a First Amendment lawyer, said in an interview that Mr. Trump could find ways to “chip away” at it.

That’s been done before:

First Amendment lawyers are more immediately concerned with potential leak investigations, as well as Freedom of Information Act requests, which can provide the best way to expose government secrets.

Look no farther than the potential attorney general candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as mayor of New York was so allergic to records requests that news organizations and others regularly sued him for basic information.

Success at court was meaningless given that proceedings kept the information out of public view for so long that “he really won,” said George Freeman, who was the assistant general counsel for The New York Times then and is now the executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.

In short, resist until it doesn’t matter, then give in. You lose but you win, and Justin Peters notes what happens if Trump gets Congress to change the libel laws:

The first thing that will happen, if Trump gets his way, will be an uptick in libel lawsuits. Of course, successful libel lawsuits rely on judges who are sympathetic to the claimants, and Trump cannot remake the entire judiciary in one stroke. But many journalists and their employers don’t have the wherewithal to fight lawsuits, even baseless ones, to the end. Perhaps the worst thing that could happen to the press under a Trump administration might not be that he will try to shackle it, but that it will sometimes choose to shackle itself. I have no doubt that many, many journalists will continue to investigate and report critically on Trump, and will be backed to the hilt by their editors. But I fear there will be others who weigh the costs and benefits of hitting Trump hard, and ultimately decide the story isn’t worth it.

As president, Trump will almost certainly foster an atmosphere that normalizes the vilification of the media and forces reporters into a defensive posture. He regularly taunted journalists on the campaign trail. He publicly mocked the disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. At a campaign rally just last week, he menaced NBC reporter Katy Tur from the stage. As president, he will be newly empowered to retaliate against journalists whom he deems hostile. This retaliation, in many cases, might be subtly enforced: encouraging federal agencies to stall or ignore Freedom of Information Act requests, holding limited press briefings and refusing to take questions from unfriendly reporters, curbing reportorial access to relevant events and personnel. It’s true that Trump will often grant interviews to reporters who have uncovered dirt on him; it’s also true that his campaign enforced a blacklist on some organizations.

That puts our free press in danger:

Trump owes his presidency to millions of Americans who apparently deem Alex Jones and racist email forwards more credible than the Washington Post and the New York Times. “Things” ought to “happen” to reporters who are “wrong,” Trump said, and the imprecision of all three terms is reason for dread.

That may be so, but Mirren Gidda and Zach Schonfeld, in what’s left of Newsweek, go the other way:

“The First Amendment guarantees that Congress can make no law that abridges the freedom of the press,” writes Andrea Hatcher, associate professor and chair of the department of politics at the University of the South, in an email to Newsweek. “A free press is part of the American identity. And textual Constitutional guarantees have always been rather sacred.”

There’s no need to worry:

In recent decades, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled to protect the press’s freedom. Camila Vergara, a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University and an adjunct lecturer in political theory at New York University, outlined three landmark decisions to Newsweek that she said would keep news outlets free to criticize Trump.

The first ruling came in 1931, in Near v. Minnesota , when the Supreme Court found that a state law allowing prior restraint of the press – essentially, censorship in advance – was unconstitutional.

The second – which could stymie Trump’s February promise to sue journalists and “win lots of money” – was in 1964 with New York Times v. Sullivan, which established the “actual malice” standard. The court unanimously decided that for a public figure to win a libel suit against the media, he or she had to prove the outlet acted with “actual malice” – essentially, that the report was known to be inaccurate or that it was published with reckless disregard for its veracity.

Finally, the third decision, again involving the New York Times, saw the court rule in 1971 that the U.S. government (the other plaintiff) could not stop the Times and the Washington Post from publishing the then-classified Pentagon Papers, documents which detailed the nation’s involvement in Vietnam. The ruling, Vergara says, “puts the burden of proof on the government, to prove that publication of sensitive information would undermine national security.”

In other words, the Supreme Court has had the press’s back.

Or it doesn’t:

The trouble is that there’s a vacancy on the court, created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. Two of the sitting judges, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are over 80 years old. Should they die or retire, Trump will have the chance to appoint two more justices to the bench. (In September, sources claimed that Trump wanted to nominate the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel  – a man who is also notorious for bankrolling the lawsuit that sued Gawker out of existence – to the court. Spokespeople for both Trump and Thiel denied the reports.)

“What now is frightening – for a free press and other freedoms we hold dear – is that the president is positioned to create a court that can interpret the Constitution in ways that undermine our liberty – even those that we thought to be inviolable,” writes Hatcher. “Unified ideological control of the three branches of government, plus many of the state governments, means that institutional checks and balances are more vulnerable than they have ever been.”

The tweeted threats will not end. The endless federal lawsuits against news organizations will begin. Jefferson never imagined this, and he certainly never imagined this:

In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others, a BuzzFeed News analysis has found.

During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook…

Up until those last the months of the campaign, the top election content from major outlets had easily outpaced that of fake election news on Facebook. Then, as the election drew closer, engagement for fake content on Facebook skyrocketed and surpassed that of the content from major news outlets.

And it seemed to be a planned effort:

Of the 20 top-performing false election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton. Two of the biggest false hits were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump. The only viral false stories during the final three months that were arguably against Trump’s interests were a false quote from Mike Pence about Michelle Obama, a false report that Ireland was accepting American “refugees” fleeing Trump, and a hoax claiming RuPaul said he was groped by Trump.

It was almost all pro-Trump, and it was a flood:

This week BuzzFeed News reported that a group of Facebook employees have formed a task force to tackle the issue, with one saying that “fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season.” The Wall Street Journal also reported that Google would begin barring fake news websites from its AdSense advertising program. Facebook soon followed suit.

These developments follow a study by BuzzFeed News that revealed hyper-partisan Facebook pages and their websites were publishing false or misleading content at an alarming rate – and generating significant Facebook engagement in the process. The same was true for the more than 100 US politics websites BuzzFeed News found being run out of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Jefferson never mentioned Macedonia – but then he couldn’t have imagined radio, and then television, and then Twitter, and then a flood of totally fake news on something called Facebook. Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract the notice of a well-informed public, that well-informed public may be relied on to set things right, right? Of course that’s true. Now that’s also become impossible. Thomas Jefferson would not have liked Donald Trump.


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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