Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

Did Donald Trump Obstruct Justice?

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We had a fun argument earlier this week on CNN between Jeffrey Toobin and Alan Dershowitz over whether or not Donald Trump obstructed justice by his conduct toward former FBI director James Comey. You can see it here (4:43).

Toobin claimed that Trump obstructed justice:

  • That the alleged request by Trump to Comey to lay off investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn would have constituted obstruction of justice;
  • That Trump’s firing of Comey was obstruction of justice.

Dershowitz disagreed. He argued that Trump had the constitutional options to order Comey directly to cease investigating Flynn or even to grant Flynn an executive pardon. Dershowitz cited the example of Caspar Weinberger, who had served as Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan and who had been indicted by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh in 1992, accusing Weinberger of perjury and obstruction of justice during the Iran-Contra Affair. President George H. W. Bush pardoned Weinberger before these charges could be tried.

Dershowitz did not argue that Trump should get a free pass, just that his behavior was within his authority under the Constitution and did not constitute a crime. During the interview, Dershowitz said, “Impeachment is political. There is no judicial review of impeachment. You can impeach a president for jaywalking.”

I have to agree with Dershowitz, not just because of his reputation as a constitutional law scholar. Where does the FBI appear on the constitutional org chart? It is within the Justice Department, part of the Executive branch. The FBI is not an independent agency — does anybody really want it to be? (Anybody remember J. Edgar Hoover?)

As such, the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president, who has the constitutional authority to dismiss the director for any reason, or no reason at all. This is not to say that there will be no political consequences for the president. Lyndon Johnson wanted to dismiss Hoover, but drew back from the political consequences [see Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 529]. Trump went ahead and fired Comey, and he can live with the political consequences of having done so.

Abuse of political power is a perfectly good reason to impeach a president. Congress also has less extreme options at its disposal, such as cutting funding for the president’s programs and either refusing or delaying consideration of the president’s legislative agenda.

Criminalizing political behavior you don’t like is a bad road to go down. It would represent another step toward being a banana republic with no bananas.

In this case, it is political spinelessness that causes people to seek some artificial objective standard — never mind that it is not applicable. If you don’t like the man’s politics, come out and say so. Seek political means to counteract them.

And if you’re in journalism, and you are concerned that you can’t object to someone’s politics and still appear unbiased, you’re absolutely right. You have to choose your course and live with the consequences no less than a politician has to.

Written by srojak

June 10, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Interviewing Kellyanne Conway

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This video (6:31 long) from Vox was brought to my attention. It raises a number of interesting questions. Laid over with questions about Vox itself and the media in general, we have even more questions. It is a very layered story, and worth some time to dig through the various layers.

Let’s start with the subject at hand, then open the lens to the bigger picture.

Being a Representative

Conway’s role on these shows is to represent the administration. Within a circumscribed, forest-for-the-trees perspective of the role (more on that later), I think she does an outstanding job. She is determined and relentless. When she has a strong hand, she plays it; when she has a weak hand, she bluffs like crazy.

She knows that many of her interviewers want to pin her down. They want to face her. They want to force her to fold, to make concessions. She has no intention of doing that. It’s a test of wills.

I have some experience in representing myself; I represented a software company in sales efforts. Conway is a walking illustration of the very ethos of a successful software sales representative: “They promised you beachfront? You don’t want beachfront. Swampland is the future!”

Being Donald Trump’s Representative

Overlaid on top of this is the fact that she is representing the administration headed by President Trump. I don’t think I am being unfair to Trump by saying that this is no ordinary presidential administration. He consistently promised something out of the ordinary on his campaign, and he is delivering in abundance.

Given the nature of Donald Trump, the person, there are going to be some striking challenges in being his representative. For openers, he pops off at the mouth — or the tweet — much more than the typical organizational leader. Then his representatives have to go forward and try to control the damage.

I believe that Trump did not further his own cause by calling Judge James Robart a “so-called judge”, but he did. I believe that a more nuanced approach to the limitations of the press would have been preferable to calling them “The enemy of the American people.” But Trump doesn’t do nuance. We’ve had years to figure this out. The man is, as of this writing, 70 years old; he’s set in his ways.

So you, the representative, get the task of appearing in front of the press, who are howling like a scalded dog after having been called the enemy of the American people. You can’t unsay his remarks. You can’t disown them. You can’t cut and run. How are you going to navigate this?

So, yeah, Conway “reinvents Trump’s positions into more defensible versions of themselves.” How else would she keep her head above water? Jeff Lord has been doing the same thing as a Trump flack on CNN for the entire 2016 campaign. When Trump made totally outrageous, foot-in-mouth statements that would appear indefensible, Lord simply replaced them with positions from an idealized, Trump-like candidate that existed in his own imagination. What would you do on camera in front of a national audience? Concede the point? That’s not what you’re there for.

Some Perspective on Representatives

None of this is new; it’s just a matter of degree. The British series Yes, Prime Minister contained an episode titled “Official Secrets“, which first aired in 1987. Here is a link to the video. If you’re pressed for time, skip forward to about the 23:00 mark.

Bernard, what made you think that, just because someone was asking you questions, you had to answer them?
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

Further on, Hacker instructs Bernard in how to handle difficult questions. He has eight ways to defect questions. The net of his advice is:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say and say it, no matter what they ask. Pay no attention to the question; make your own statement. If they ask the question again, you just say, “That’s not the question” or “I think the more important question is …” Then you make another statement of your own.
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

As a representative, you don’t have the option of having nothing to say. So you have to have something to say and force your will to prevail over the will of your questioners. Conway is very good at this.

So Why Invite Her?

The host of the Vox piece says at the end:

Just remember, she’s doing her job. It’s the news shows that keep booking her that are letting you down.
— Carlos Maza

Why do they bring her on? Part of it is the unwritten co-dependency story of how Trump got to be President in the first place. The news networks have 1,440 minutes a day to fill, 365 days a year. They’re crazy for content. They don’t know what else to do.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde

Trump has exploited this dependency mercilessly for his entire campaign. By saying and tweeting outrageous things, he dominated his opponents through airtime. While career politicians were cautious and scripted, Trump was spontaneous and outrageous. The received wisdom was that you couldn’t win an election doing that. Evidently, the received wisdom was wrong.

No, having flacks on a news show to evade questions is not helpful to us as citizens. It never was. The extremes of this administration just throw the issue into bright relief. Neither was having teams of opposing flacks to shout at one another and talk over one another during the 2016 campaign. Evidently, it is all the cable channels can think of fill time.

Journalists seem to think that the reporting of peoples’ opinions constitutes reporting facts. It may be a fact that the person you’re interviewing has that opinion, but it’s still an opinion. Postmodern journalism happened long before Donald Trump threw his cap in the ring.

Consider a real issue: last year, there was an announced change in Department of Labor policy that was later blocked by a federal court injunction. How much of this issue did you hear on cable news? How much did you read about it in your favorite print outlet?

Vox

The people at Vox are good at identifying behavior from Conway when it comes from people they don’t like, such as Conway. But do not lose sight of the fact that they have their own viewpoint to push — everybody does.

Some further reading:

What is Truth?

Most of us accept something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Simply put, if you accept this theory, than in order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond in some meaningful way to objective reality. This requires acceptance of a bundle of premises:

  1. There is an objective reality;
  2. We can know it;
  3. We can all obtained a shared common knowledge of it;
  4. We can take a statement and measure the correspondence with that shared common knowledge of reality, and therefore the truthfulness of that statement.

A full treatment of these implications is going to have to wait for another post, because this is a subject in itself.

It is clear to me, from his conduct, that Donald Trump does not subscribe to this theory. His truth is more pragmatic in nature: what is useful to me right now? This may seem shocking and even immoral, but it has an intellectual lineage going back to William James and Charles Sanders Pierce:

‘The true’, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily.
— William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI (1907)

So something can be true today, because it is expedient, and then untrue tomorrow, because it is no longer expedient.

I direct the interested reader to the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Pragmatism for further discussion.

It is not necessary for Donald Trump to have read William James for him to think in this way. The notion has been rattling around out there for over a hundred years.

The question of truth introduces a professional challenge to the journalist: what are you reporting? The truth or someone’s truth?

For the journalist who does accept the Correspondence Theory of Truth, it presents also a personal ethical challenge: what do you do about this? Do the standards of journalism require you to refrain from inserting your own beliefs, or do you have an ethical responsibility upon to advocate your viewpoint as to the nature of truth?

It is clear that many of the people trying to get “the truth” out of Conway and those like her are not formally aware of these issues. They sense something is not quite right, but I don’t think they could articulate what the problem is.

 

 

Written by srojak

February 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Part of the Problem

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Glenn Beck says the current climate of the public square bothers him. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, he said:

Everybody feels like there’s a play going on, and we’re just watching it and looking at each other and shaking our heads in disbelief. And nobody’s listening to the hardworking American who doesn’t feel like they belong to anything anymore. In fact, it’s almost as if we’re being, we’re standing outside and we’re not being invited to this party at all.
— “Glenn Beck: I Warned about the Rise of Nazism in America, and Now with Trump It Is Happening” (link to transcript)

Which I find interesting, because Beck is not just any old pundit. He is the founder of TheBlaze, a media organization that serves as the home for, among others, Tomi Lahren. Yeah, the one who calls herself “a commentator, not a journalist.”

So if Glenn Beck wants to take an active role in increasing the signal-to-noise ratio, he has levers to push. He could start by setting up standards of ethical journalism and demanding that people who have access to his platform adhere to these standards. He could assert that the people who broadcast under his nameplate take responsibility for what they say. He could cut off the use of his airspace to make the situation worse.

If Beck is not willing to do so, then his complaints degenerate into the four most Machiavellian words in the English language: “I told you so.”

Written by srojak

October 3, 2016 at 12:35 pm

It’s a Free Country

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Tomi Lahren is a political commentator working for TheBlaze, a news/entertainment network founded by Glenn Beck. On 8 July, one day after the ambush that killed five Dallas police, Lahren set off an Internet storm with a tweet, which she later pulled down, that equated Black Lives Matter to the KKK.

The next Sunday, Lahren appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”, in a conversation that also included David Zurawik, media critic for The Baltimore Sun [transcript]. Lahren opened reasonably enough:

I think that the Black Lives Matter started out with fantastic intentions.

They were trying to correct an injustice, real or perceived. And they were seeking equality and to bring attention to the things that they felt in their communities. However, we saw, in the aftermath of Ferguson, that things took an ugly turn.

We saw looting, we saw rioting, we saw burning down of communities. Now we’re seeing — and though it is not all — and I’m very careful to say that — though it is not all of the protesters, we do see some that are holding signs saying “F. the police,” “Kill all pigs.” Social media, though they might not be the first and foremost people of the movement, they are posting with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter horrific and awful things and calls to violence towards the police. So, I do believe that this movement needs to get itself back in check, because it has taken an ugly turn.

The people in the Black Lives Matter protests would likely not agree with Lahren’s summary. It is not my purpose to promote either side in this posting. The point is that Lahren started out with a reasonable tone.

When the discussion came around to the tweet put out by former Congressman Joe Walsh threatening President Obama, Zurawick stood up for a traditional media approach, discussing the issue without offering Walsh a media platform:

My compromise would be, you talk about what Walsh said, but you don’t bring him on. You talk about it with people. You have folks like Jamia. You have a panel like this, and let us talk about it.

And by doing that, you’re somehow saying to the audience, this man is irresponsible in this kind of rhetoric. You need to know it’s out there, but we’re going to try to contextualize it and talk about it and offer a framework for thinking about it.

That might sound paternalistic. That might sound old media thinking. Maybe it is.

Lahren emphatically disagreed, and went right off the rails:

LAHREN: I entirely disagree.

If you disagree with what someone is posting on social media, or you disagree with their voice, you bring them on and you allow them to address it. You don’t talk about them. You allow them to defend themselves. You allow them to clarify. And you have that open and honest conversation, as I have asked to do on many of the platforms that have said I went too far.

You bring that person on. You let them speak for themselves.

ZURAWIK: You did. You did go too far, Tomi. You did.

LAHREN: That is your opinion.

ZURAWIK: No, it’s not — I wish it was your employer’s opinion.

That’s really reckless, that kind of tweet at the situation we’re in. As a journalist, what you did appalls me. That’s the end of it. I’m trying to be civil about this.

LAHREN: And I appreciate it.

A, I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator. I’m allowed to have my feelings and my opinions. And I stand behind the things that I say, because the thing that hurts people the most is when you’re honest. When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.

What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.

ZURAWIK: There’s no room for the kind of ignorance that your tweet put out there at this time in our history.

LAHREN: I agree with you that there’s divisive language out there that needs to be tamed. And I agree that some things that I may have said come from a place of anger and come from a place of being truly heartbroken at what happened in my city of Dallas.

But make no mistake. The First Amendment applies to everyone. And the best way to combat speech you don’t like is not to silence others. It’s more speech. It’s more conversation.

When I was about ten years old, my classmates and I used to say, “It’s a free country.” It was our justification for saying or doing anything we wanted to do. But we’re adults now, and we recognize that this is not an adult approach to life.

In less than five minutes, Lahren delivered an argument so wrong that it should be studied in schools. Lahren went wrong in these ways:

  • Evasion: Lahren said, “I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator.” What does that even mean? She has a media platform for her comments. What is the distinction between a journalist and a commentator? Is a commentator free to make any sort of comment, no matter how ill-informed, inflammatory or irresponsible, without risk of being called on it?
  • Bogus Justification: Lahren continued, “I’m allowed to have my feelings and opinions.” So is every bully, manipulator and professional victim. Some of them ought to be kept to yourself.
    • Feelings are personal and private. They can’t be wrong. They also can’t be justification for actions.
    • Opinions can be wrong. A person having the opinion that the earth is flat is scientifically wrong. A person having the opinion that it is morally acceptable to own slaves is, in contemporary Western culture, wrong.
  • A substantial misreading of the First Amendment. More on this later.
  • Expansive approach to honesty: “When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.” We have way too much of this kind of self-described “honest” behavior in our daily life already. It is possible to be honest without being obnoxious.
  • Hasty generalization: “What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.” Tomi, aren’t you doing exactly that by saying this?

Freedom of Speech

There have been many idiotic invocations of First Amendment rights lately, so this is a good time to review. Always start with the primary source:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The key word here is Congress, that being the body given the lawmaking power in Article I of the Constitution. We extended this restriction to the several states, requiring them to grant the same rights to citizens as are granted by the Federal government.

The First Amendment is a restriction on government. It does not give a person the right to say anything without:

  • risk of being challenged over what the speaker is saying;
  • risk of consequences for speech whose content is inflammatory;
  • risk of ruining the speaker’s own credibility.

Lahren put out a tweet that was irresponsible and ill-advised. She realized that — or was made to — which is why she later deleted it. I understand that, in contemporary society, nothing is a mistake as long as you don’t admit it, but her attempts to justify herself on First Amendment grounds are pathetic.

Standards Cramp My Style

Despite her assertions to the contrary, Lahren is a journalist. In writing this blog, so am I. We face challenges on factual reporting, information reliability and time to prepare. I certainly don’t have formal training in journalism, but I have sense enough to be responsible for what I say. This piece waited all week while I found source material, found an uninterrupted block of time to write and organized my thoughts. I can’t just burn these off in a few minutes before dinner. I have scrapped some ideas because, when I examined the source material, the story just did not stand up to scrutiny.

Practicing bodies of journalists have developed standards and codes of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics featuring four organizing principles:

  • Seek Truth and Report It;
  • Minimize Harm;
  • Act Independently;
  • Be Accountable and Transparent.

When I was growing up and there were three major networks and major city newspapers, access to communicate came with strings attached. One of these strings was adherence to a set of journalistic standards. In order to get an audience, a journalist had to conform to the standards of the house. Here, for example, are the standards for National Public Radio.

Now, with the Internet, many of us have access to be heard that we would never before had. With that access comes responsibility. If we carry on as if we had no ethical standards, we will squander the opportunity before us. We won’t encourage more conversation, as Lahren said she wants to do, but more shrill screaming by partisan polemicists. We will eventually be ignored because people won’t trust us to be accountable for what we say.

David Zurawick was speaking from knowledge. His position was more than his opinion; it was grounded in the hard lessons of two hundred years of journalism, compressed into standards that journalists agree to operate within. It behooves all of us who address the public to take these principles seriously.

Written by srojak

July 16, 2016 at 9:22 pm