In 1897, Adolph Ochs, the owner of the New York Times, created the newspaper’s slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” – and that’s still on the masthead of the physical newspaper today – but not the online version of course. That’s not print after all, but the whole thing is old news anyway. Those words were a jab at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, both known for their lurid, sensationalist and not particularly accurate reporting of facts – if those were facts that they had there. That was “yellow journalism” and Ochs’ paper became known as the Gray Lady – the newspaper of record.
The Gray Lady, however, got big and boring. The newspaper covered everything, in detail. The joke was that the masthead should have read “All the News That Fits, We Print” – because there was too much news, even if it was accurate and reported fairly. The New York Times eventually became a “big” newspaper – by sheer weight – but it has slimmed down and it is far livelier now, with columnists like Gail Collins and Frank Bruni and Michelle Goldberg now outshining David Brooks and Paul Krugman and Tom Freidman, the old guard.
But there’s the other side of the house. The news is still the news. That should be reported accurately and reported fairly, with no ambiguity, and in detail, so no one misunderstands anything. That’s the job, and that’s hard. And that’s even harder when the current president has a new slogan – “There’s no proof of anything but there could very well be.”
What? The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker explain what that is about:
The great election-eve middle-class tax cut began not as a factual proposal, but as a false promise.
When President Trump abruptly told reporters over the weekend that middle-income Americans would receive a 10 percent tax cut before the midterm elections, neither officials on Capitol Hill nor in his administration knew anything about such a tax cut. The White House released no substantive information. And although cutting taxes requires legislation, Congress is not scheduled to be back in session until after the Nov. 6 elections.
Yet Washington’s bureaucratic machinery whirred into action nonetheless – working to produce a policy that could be seen as supporting Trump’s whim.
And that was this:
One such option now under discussion by administration officials is a symbolic nonbinding “resolution” designed to signal to voters ahead of the elections that if Republicans hold their congressional majorities they might pass a future 10 percent tax cut for the middle class. And House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said Tuesday that he would work with the White House and the Treasury Department to develop a plan “over the coming weeks.”
This president just says things, on a whim, and now the whole government seems to be in the business of humoring this man’s whims:
The Pentagon leaped into action to both hold a military parade and to launch a “Space Force” on the president’s whims. The Commerce Department moved to create a plan for auto tariffs after Trump angrily threatened to impose them. And just this week, Vice President Pence, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House all rushed to try to back up Trump’s unsupported claim that “unknown Middle Easterners” were part of a migrant caravan in Central America – only to have the president admit late Tuesday that there was no proof at all.
That may not matter:
“Virtually no one on the planet has the kind of power that a president of the United States has to scramble bureaucracies in the service of whim,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Whatever Donald Trump wakes up and thinks about, or whatever comes to mind in the middle of a speech, actually has the reality in that it is actionable in some odd sense.”
That’s an odd situation. The presidency is special. He’s special. He doesn’t really muse. His musings, his random whims, are instantaneously policy statements that demand action. He’s doing his job, but Rucker and Parker point out how difficult action can be with that migrant caravan:
The president tweeted an unsubstantiated warning Monday morning that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” and later repeated it. His claim received extensive news coverage, but administration agencies did not immediately provide information supporting it.
By the day’s end, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Trump “absolutely” has evidence that there are Middle Easterners in the caravan – but she cited only a statistic that each day ten suspected or known terrorists try to enter the United States illegally…
Though Trump’s claim was not about suspected terrorists specifically, he and his administration seemed to imply – again with no evidence – that his hypothetical “Middle Easterners” may have intentions to commit terrorism.
Vice President Pence sought to back up his boss’s claim, saying Tuesday morning in a Washington Post Live interview that it is “inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border.”
But just hours later, Trump admitted to reporters during an Oval Office event that he has no evidence to support the claim about the caravan.
“There’s no proof of anything,” Trump said, “but there could very well be.”
And there it was, the new slogan, for a new world:
Daniel A. Effron, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School who studies the psychology of lies, said political leaders such as Trump can make falsehoods seem true through imagination and repetition.
“When falsehoods feel familiar, one concern is you don’t actually know what’s true and what’s false,” Effron said. “There’s a lot of information to keep track of, and you use familiarity as a cue to what’s true. The other concern is when you’re invited to imagine how something could be true, you actually know that it’s false, but you don’t necessarily think it’s unethical to say.”
In short, say nothing, shrug, because this man knows what he’s doing:
Simon Blackwell, a retired philosophy professor at the University of Cambridge and author of the book “Truth,” said, “If you control the agenda efficiently, then there’s no possibility of independent inquiry, and I think that’s what Trump is a genius at.”
Or maybe he’s not a genius:
Trump has a pattern of catching his aides off guard with random policy announcements that are rooted more in his imagination and desires than any organized administration initiative.
Trump has sometimes issued directives publicly if he believes his subordinates are not executing his agenda forcefully enough or taking his wishes seriously. “He thinks, ‘Hey, if I say it on Twitter, then these guys will have to follow,'” said one former White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly share the president’s process.
Everyone has to follow:
In July 2017, Trump revealed in a tweet his decision to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. His social media missive preempted a policy review with several options that he was set to receive from administration officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his underlings scrambled to react and reconcile the president’s sudden demand with the military’s practices and protocols.
The Pentagon was also forced to develop a “Space Force” after Trump announced last spring that he wanted to create a sixth branch of the military. The president initially said it was conceived as a joke, but “Space Force” has become a frequent chant at his campaign rallies, and he has tasked Pence with overseeing the initiative.
Trump also sent military leaders reeling in January when he said in a meeting with Pentagon brass that he wanted a grand military parade like the one he had gleefully witnessed in Paris on Bastille Day — complete with soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the boulevards of Washington.
Pentagon officials took his desire as a presidential directive and worked reluctantly to stage a parade for this fall, but Trump backed off plans in August, citing cost concerns and blaming local officials in Washington.
Desires aren’t what they used to be:
After winning the Electoral College in 2016, Trump falsely claimed he only lost the popular vote against Hillary Clinton because of widespread voter fraud – leading to a formal commission on the issue chaired by Pence. The panel was eventually disbanded after it became mired in lawsuits and only managed to hold two meetings.
Well, there was no proof of anything but there could very well have been – one never knows.
The Daily Beast notes that this is at the core of the migrant caravan business:
For Republicans, the sharp turn toward immigration fears, and those related to the caravan in particular, has been viewed a clear political winner, even as some acknowledge that the rhetoric from the president and others – including philanthropist and Democratic financier George Soros was funding the caravan – has been overblown.
“Soros is probably not masterminding these people coming to the border,” conceded one GOP operative in an interview on Tuesday. “When it comes to allowing segments of the base to believe what they want to believe, it happens on both sides. Republicans are no more guilty of it than Democrats.”
What made the caravan politically useful, the operative continued, was that it resonated with precisely the voter sect that the GOP needed to reach in the next two weeks. “It’s an issue that motivates Trump’s most ardent conservative base,” the operative said. “If your worry was that we’re not going to be able to turn our base voters out, well – what’s the opposite of kryptonite?”
And this is working:
Trump supporters have also seized on an image of Hondurans burning an American flag with a swastika drawn on it, dubbing them the “caravan protesters” and implying that they were members of the caravan.
In a widely circulated tweet retweeted by conservative columnist Ann Coulter, right-wing social media personality Vincent James wrote, “Damn these Honduran migrants seem like they really want to come here?” In reality, the Hondurans were protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy in Honduras and weren’t members of the caravan.
The caravan issue has even earned its own “Bikers for Trump” hoax, with online rumors flying around that a horde of Trump-loving bikers were headed to the border to stop the caravan before it crossed into U.S. territory.
This is working:
For Democrats watching it all unfold, the past few days have produced a nauseating case of déjà vu. Matt Canter, who headed communications for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2014, recalled how the closing weeks of that cycle turned on “border crossings, ebola, and beheadings.” Though Canter suspected that voters had become “a little sick of the baiting and the scare tactics” – citing the failure of Ed Gillespie to win the Virginia gubernatorial election in 2017 by pivoting to fear-mongering over MS-13 gangs – he conceded that the caravan story likely would hurt.
“I think these last couple weeks matter a lot,” said Canter. “I think they matter a ton. And I think that atmospherics matter.”
Sure they matter, but sometimes they do not matter:
“Should there be consequences to those people who promote falsehoods?”
That was the question that Jeanine Pirro put to President Donald Trump when he called into her Fox News show on Oct. 7, a day after the U.S. Senate approved the contentious Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. When Trump responded that he’d love to see libel laws toughened so that victims of smears could have an easier time getting comeuppance, Pirro voiced approval. “Exactly, exactly,” she said.
On Tuesday, just two weeks after Pirro prodded Trump to reaffirm his punitive approach to free speech, an attorney for the former Westchester County judge appeared in court in a bid to get her out of a defamation lawsuit brought by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson. This time, Pirro was singing a different tune. Her lawyer argued there should be no consequences for Pirro’s allegedly false statements accusing Mckesson of directing “Black Lives Matter” protesters to injure police officers.
At the hearing, New York Supreme Court Judge Robert Kalish entertained arguments in a case all about how we talk about jurisprudence in this country, how Fox News viewers interpret what they hear from its commentators and, yes, about double standards. Needless to say, while ultimately reserving his judgment about whether this lawsuit should continue, Kalish wasn’t particularly impressed by Pirro’s performance on television.
“She’s a judge, a former DA,” Kalish told Dori Hanswirth, the Arnold & Porter attorney appearing for both Fox News and Pirro. “You’d think she’d understand what we are dealing with. You’d think she could be clear and accurate. You’d think she would know better.”
She didn’t know better. Long ago, Adolph Ochs knew better. The news should be reported accurately and reported fairly, with no ambiguity, and in detail, so no one misunderstands anything. That may be boring – dull gray not bright yellow – but that’s the job.
That’s what’s bugging Matthew Yglesias:
The large, ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not attracting much coverage on American television news because TV news producers believe (likely for good reason) that the American viewing public is not incredibly interested in public health in sub-Saharan Africa.
That said there was a time when TV news covered Ebola in Africa a lot: in the immediate run-up to the 2014 midterms, when Republican Party political operatives decided that trying to alarm people about Ebola would be a good way to win votes.
Those were the days. Half the population of Dallas was going to die from Ebola because the president, born in Kenya, would do nothing, and Yglesias has the data:
Ebola coverage was widespread on both cable and network news, with over 1,000 segments airing in the four weeks before the election. Coverage then immediately plummeted when it no longer served the tactical interests of the Republican Party, with just 50 segments airing over the two post-election weeks.
That was then, and this is now:
Today, of course, a new ongoing Ebola outbreak that happens to coincide with a US midterm election is not something the Republican Party wants to emphasize in its midterm messaging. Consequently, the question of African public health continues to languish in its customary obscurity.
What Republicans want to scare people about instead is a group of a few thousand Central Americans who are currently in Southern Mexico. Some of them may make it to the US-Mexico border a few weeks from now, at which point they will be denied entry. Consequently, television news is doing a lot of coverage of this issue rather than of Ebola.
Yglesias is not amused:
When pressed as to why they are allowing President Trump to serve as their assignment editor, most reporters tend to say that presidential statements are inherently newsworthy – if Trump says something is a national emergency, then that’s big news…
When Barack Obama proclaimed that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” television news did not respond with weeks of nonstop climate coverage. When Obama was president, TV news took its assignments from Republican congressional leaders.
Now that Trump is president, TV news takes its assignments from the Republican-dominated White House.
Yglesias calls this the hack gap:
The hack gap explains why Clinton’s email server received more television news coverage than all policy issues combined in the 2016 election. It explains why Republicans can hope to get away with dishonest spin about preexisting conditions. It’s why Democrats are terrified that Elizabeth Warren’s past statements about Native American heritage could be general election poison in 2020, and it’s why an internecine debate about civility has been roiling progressive circles for nearly two years even while the president of the United States openly praises assaulting journalists.
So it comes down to this:
The hack gap has two core pillars. One is the constellation of conservative media outlets – led by Fox News and other Rupert Murdoch properties like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but also including Sinclair Broadcasting in local television, much of AM talk radio, and new media offerings such as Breitbart and the Daily Caller – that simply abjure anything resembling journalism in favor of propaganda.
The other is that the self-consciousness journalists at legacy outlets have about accusations of liberal bias leads them to bend over backward to allow the leading conservative gripes of the day to dominate the news agenda. Television producers who would never dream of assigning segments where talking heads debate whether it’s bad that the richest country on earth also has millions of children growing up in dire poverty think nothing of chasing random conservative shiny objects, from “Fast & Furious” (remember that one?) to Benghazi to the migrant caravan.
And more than Citizens United or even gerrymandering, it’s a huge constant thumb on the scale in favor of the political right in America.
Kevin Drum calls bullshit on that:
It is fine to criticize the news media for spending too much time on whatever the Republican Party is trying to scare people about. At the same time, it’s just the nature of the news business that it covers things that are new. The Ebola outbreak was new. The migrant caravan is new. Climate change is old.
If Democrats want equal time in the news media scare-a-thon, they need to at least find something new for the media to cover.
That shouldn’t be that hard:
Brett Kavanaugh got a lot of coverage a few weeks ago, and Jamal Khashoggi is getting a lot of coverage now. Both of those are helpful to the Democratic cause as long as Democrats play their cards right. What they have in common is (a) they’re new, and (b) fresh revelations dripped out daily, giving reporters something to cover every day. In the Khashoggi case, the drip-drip-drip is being coordinated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for reasons of his own. I don’t know what those reasons are, and Erdogan’s motivations in this whole affair remain kind of murky, but Democrats could definitely take some media lessons from him.
In any case, the key to hijacking the news media is to pound on a story where there’s fresh news to report every single day. Republicans are pretty good at this, Democrats less so. But it’s not rocket science.
But then there’s another factor:
Americans over 50 are worse than younger people at telling facts from opinions, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.
Given 10 statements, five each of fact and opinion, younger Americans correctly identified both the facts and the opinions at higher rates than older Americans did. Forty-four percent of younger people identified all five opinions as opinions, while only 26 percent of older people did. And 18-to-29-year-olds performed more than twice as well as the 65+ set. Of the latter group, only 17 percent classified all five facts as factual statements.
On the individual questions, the identification gap was particularly large regarding the nature of the American government and questions about immigration, but there was no statement that younger Americans did not identify with equal or higher accuracy than their elders.
An earlier study by the American Press Institute also found that older Americans were more confident than younger ones in their ability to discern fact from opinion.
They aren’t, and odd things happen:
A Florida man, who was arrested for allegedly groping a female passenger while on a flight, reportedly told authorities “the president of the United States says it’s okay to grab women by their private parts.”
This man did read the news:
Authorities say in court documents seen by ABC News that Bruce Michael Alexander twice touched the breast of female passenger sitting in front of him during a flight from Houston to Albuquerque on Sunday.
According to the report, the woman, whose identity has not yet been made public, told authorities she thought the first touch may have been accidental but said she believes the second touch was not.
It was not:
The man allegedly began touching the woman inappropriately after she dozed off on the flight. When she was touched a second time, court documents say “she rose from her seat, turned around and told the passenger behind her that she didn’t know why he thought it was okay and he needed to stop.”
The woman was later reportedly relocated to another seat by airline staff. Shortly after the plane landed, Alexander was arrested…
According to the affidavit, Alexander told officers after he was placed in handcuffs that “the president of the United States says it’s okay to grab women by their private parts.”
The 49-year-old man has since reportedly been charged with abusive sexual contact and has a preliminary hearing scheduled on Tuesday.
And how will the Gray Lady report on that, or on any of this? All the news that’s fit to print? What happens when none of it is fit to print?