Monday, March 26, 2018

Scapegoating Facebook

Relax, everyone. The media has found the real culprit behind all the shenanigans that resulted in Donald Trump becoming President.

Is it Jim Comey, the FBI Director who sent a letter to Congress 11 days before the election to advise Congress he had re-opened his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email usage while also hiding from the public the fact that his agency had an active, counter-intelligence investigation into the Trump campaign? Nah. Comey got a huge advance to write a book and is weeks away from a promotional tour that will further burnish his reputation in the media as a straight shooter.

Is it the Russian government that hacked into the DNC’s computer servers and John Podesta’s personal email account? No, the Trump Administration has not even bothered to spend money specifically appropriated to address Russian interference in our electoral process.

Is it Wikileaks? They took those stolen email and disseminated all of it on the Internet and timed the releases strategically (during the Democratic National Convention and in the final weeks of the campaign) for maximum exposure. Nope, Julian Assange is still holed up in an embassy nearly suffocating on his own sanctimony.

Is it the media itself? That organism that decided it had Hillary Fatigue before she even announced for President, spent two years calling her shady, conflating her campaign against Trump as a  “lesser of two evils” election, and, of course, reported out on all that stolen email (which they knew was stolen at the time), serving to reinforce the very narrative they had created about her untrustworthiness. Of course not.

No, reporters have decided to pull out their pitchforks and storm Silicon Valley demanding the head of Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s crime, such that I can tell, is having lax standards about the protection of private information millions of its users voluntarily give up as part of the Faustian bargain we have agreed to in making social media an integral part of our lives. Now do not get me wrong, it is not a good look when it is revealed you accepted ad payments during the 2016 campaign in rubles or that Cambridge Analytica was able to so easily vacuum up information that should have been protected.

But scapegoating Facebook serves a very important purpose for the serious people on TV who analyze politics – it absolves them of any responsibility for what happened while conveniently laying blame at a company with which many people have a love/hate (or in some cases hate/hate) relationship.

Essentially, “the media” (that is, print journalism, cable news, and online news outlets) are saying:

“See folks, the problem was Facebook allowed you to get duped into believing things that were not true, we had nothing to do with your finding Hillary less trustworthy than Trump by spending nearly two years talking about her use of a private email server, an offense so minor, the State Department’s Inspector General could barely slap her wrist for doing it. No, it had nothing to do with CNN covering empty podiums at Trump rallies as “breaking news” or airing his rally speeches in their entirety, thereby saving him the effort of having to do paid advertising. It certainly had nothing to do with making up stories about the Clinton Foundation, suggesting no wrong doing, just “questions being asked.” About what? Who knows? It just mattered that an A-rated charity doing good work for millions of people in the third world was portrayed as some sort of slush fund for the Clintons to live a comfortable lifestyle. And it most assuredly did not have anything to do with an FBI Director flouting DOJ guidelines by commenting publicly about an investigation into a political campaign less than two weeks before an election. No, that guy got a sweet six-figure advance and the ever-lasting knob-polishing of the press for being a man of moral rectitude, not an aider and abetter of Trump’s election.”

No, it’s all Facebook’s fault.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

How To Cancel The Trump Show

In the climactic scene of the 1983 movie Wargames, a computer runs a myriad of nuclear war simulations, trying to determine whether there is a way to “win” such a fight. After exhausting all of the options (each of which resulted in total annihilation), the computer realizes “the only way to win is to not play.” 

I thought about that scene when Donald Trump went to Pennsylvania last night to rally support for a local candidate for Congress. “The media,” and by that I mean cable news, major newspapers, and online news outlets, are constantly gnashing their teeth over the Trump presidency and how to cover it properly, so here was a real-time opportunity to test whether they had learned anything from 2016, when, to take one oft-cited example, CNN cut to an empty podium where Trump was scheduled to speak hours later, and deemed it “breaking news.”

Would restraint be shown because Trump was going to campaign for a Republican candidate for Congress three days before election day and giving him airtime might put the Democratic candidate at an extreme disadvantage? Would anyone bother to wait until if/when Trump said something truly newsworthy before airing his remarks? Of course not. His remarks were carried live on cable news and his speech was then sliced into clips and disseminated far and wide, grist for hours of TV show coverage and print media reporting. 

Did he say anything newsworthy? Hardly. He called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” for the millionth time, bragged about the stock market, and hang on to your hats folks, told the audience what his 2020 reelection slogan would be. WOW. 

But Trump and the media are in a co-dependent relationship. Indeed, if you have the temerity to question whether it is appropriate or warranted to cover a Trump speech that is larded with insults, inaccuracies, and flat out lies, none other than the New York Times chief political reporter, Maggie Haberman will hop into your Twitter timeline to reprimand you. 

This is all of a piece with a narrative that reporters who cover politics have settled on - Trump runs a “reality show” presidency with the attendant plot twists, character arcs, blurring of fact and fiction, and cliffhangers that genre of entertainment is known for. Reporters, instead of focusing on what Trump does, not what he says, have played into this by covering Trump and his presidency like gossip columnists, not reporters. This should not be surprising - studies of the 2016 election showed little appetite for policy discussions and that tradition has carried on today. Consider the hand waving that occurred as Republicans saddled us with trillions in new debt while an entire day of media coverage was dominated by a fake “meltdown” by Sam Nunberg or Hope Hicks’s resignation as White House Communications Director. 

Like the computer in Wargames, the only way to “win” this game is not to play it. Media outlets can monitor what Trump says at a rally and dip into his remarks if he says anything newsworthy, but simply putting him on air so he can spread his own message without fact checking or question is acting as his propagandists, not his interlocutors. If the media continues to cover him the way they did last night’s rally, we as consumers have to change the channel, not click on the articles, or read the tweets. Ultimately, the only way a reality show gets canceled is when ratings go down. So too here.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy