There Aren’t Two Sides To Facts

A few weeks ago, I read that a newspaper editor in Cleveland responded to complaints from readers that accused the paper of being “unfair” to Donald Trump by defending actual journalism. He noted that there aren’t “two sides” to facts, and that the paper would continue to report factually and accurately. If the facts reflect poorly on Trump, so be it.

If only all the news media followed that philosophy! But they don’t. There are a number of reasons–including concern about turning off subscribers at a time when newspapers are struggling, paying too much attention to the “horse-race” and too little to the issues, and/or a profound misunderstanding of the essential mission of journalism (hint: it’s “accurate and defensible,” not “fair and balanced”).

Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Washington Post, recently attended a Trump rally in Wisconsin. His whole column is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by his report on Trump’s multiple falsehoods, aka bald-faced lies:

He announced that he had won his fraud case in New York: “The appellate division said, ‘You won the case, that’s it.’” (The court has not yet heard his appeal of the fraud judgment against him.)

He also announced that “it came out that we won this state” in 2020. (Trump lost Wisconsin by 20,682 votes.)
Trump launched into a mantra that should be familiar to Hoosiers currently suffering from an assault of GOP primary advertisements, namely that “Crooked Joe and his migrant armies of dangerous criminals” are producing a “bloodbath” among innocent, native-born Americans. (Local Republicans have adopted those falsehoods.)

It’s not the least bit true. Homicide and violent crime, after rising during the pandemic, have dropped for two straight years and are lower than during Trump’s final year in office. There is scant evidence that immigrants — legal or undocumented — commit more than their share of crime, and a lot of evidence that migrants are more law-abiding, as The Post’s Glenn Kessler has detailed.

But that doesn’t stop Trump from talking about the “massive crime” brought by “[President] Biden’s flood of illegal aliens” — the theme of his Green Bay rally and an earlier event in Grand Rapids, Mich. “They’re not humans. They’re not humans. They’re animals,” Trump said. “I’ll use the word ‘animal’ because that’s what they are.”

A friend involved with the recently launched “Hoosiers for Democracy” recently bemoaned the media’s normalization of such rhetoric, and its tendency to shrug off both Trump’s constant, preposterous and easily debunked lies, and his use of fascist terminology to dehumanize those he and his supporters consider “other”–mostly people of color. She’s absolutely right–and it’s dangerous. (Hoosiers for Democracy“ is a Hoosier movement working to ensure that Hoosiers,  “across race, place and party” vote to protect democracy in 2024.)

What far too many in what the late Molly Ivins called “the chattering classes” fail to understand is that we Americans are not engaged in a political battle. It’s all well and good to counsel respectful disagreement when partisans are arguing about the merits of a proposed bill, or the proper approach to crime and punishment, or the most effective way to approach a social problem. Those sorts of disagreements are–as the late Dick Lugar used to say– “things about which people of good will can differ.” Those sorts of disputes call for civility, negotiation, mutual respect.

Our current divide is not political–it is moral. MAGA is a fascist movement, based upon hatred of a variety of “others.” it is profoundly reactionary, steeped in conspiracy theories, powered by deep-seated fears of displacement, dismissive of democratic norms, and most definitely not coming from a place of “good faith.”

Treating “both sides” as morally equivalent is bad journalism. Distorting news in an effort to give “both sides” the benefit of the doubt requires ignoring or eliding observable facts. Whatever the underlying cause of Trump’s incredible dishonesty (my own opinion is that he is profoundly mentally ill and incapable of telling the difference between fact and whatever falsehood he prefers), ignoring it is journalistic malpractice. Pretending that his MAGA supporters are not different in kind from past political partisans ignores the existential threat posed by far-Right populist/neo-Nazi movements.

You’d think the insurrection of January 6th would have driven that lesson home.

I am certainly not suggesting that media outlets all become clones of MSNBC, or that they see themselves as anti-Fox outlets. The proper response to propaganda isn’t more propaganda–it’s fact. I just want an end to the deeply-harmful and factually unsupportable portrayals that gloss over or even ignore profoundly anti-American rhetoric and behavior in a “both sides” effort to find “balance” and equivalence where it most definitely doesn’t exist.

What “fair and balanced” gets wrong is that balance is frequently unfair.

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The Conundrum

In a discussion the other day with a friend and former legal colleague, we recalled the mantra of the law firm with which we’d once practiced: there is only one legal question, and it’s “what do we do?” What course of action do we advise the client to pursue?

I think about that mantra a lot these days, and most frequently in connection with the media.

I’m convinced that so many of the problems that bedevil American society today are exacerbated by a media landscape that is wildly fragmented. Not only are numerous media outlets–credible and not-so-credible– nakedly partisan, but thanks to the internet, they are all immediately accessible to citizens looking for “news” that confirms their world-views.

Partisan news organizations are nothing new–if you don’t believe me, read up on the vicious contemporaneous attacks on “ungodly” Thomas Jefferson. What is new is the sheer number of media outlets and the ease of accessing them.

The problem isn’t confined to out-and-out propaganda mills. Dubious stories from slanted outlets can and do get picked up by credible news organizations, and its a truism that later “corrections” are seldom as widely read as the initial misinformation.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo recently reported on an example: the New York Post had run a “made-for-Fox News story” about veterans who, it reported, had been “booted out of hotels about an hour north of New York City to make way for migrants”.

As I said, it was a made-for-Fox News: Here are these disabled or impoverished American veterans getting kicked to the curb to make way for migrants with no permission to be in the country in the first place. Politicians jumped on the story. The Post ran it. It made the rounds of the wingnutosphere. Fox of course got on board.

But none of it was true. And I don’t just mean not true in the sense of being misleading or incomplete or embellished or sensationalized. It was a hoax. Sharon Toney-Finch, the founder and head of a small local nonprofit, the YIT Foundation, which focuses on veterans issue and premature births (?) was the source of the original story. But it turns out the she recruited a group of 15 homeless men from a local shelter to impersonate veterans and talk to the press about their tale of woe.

After a few of the homeless men admitted the truth to reporters, Toney-Finch confessed she’d made the whole thing up.

The hoax was apparently perpetrated with the aim of creating a media spectacle for  the right-wing press–to focus on the Biden administration’s terrible, awful, no-good  approach to immigration, and  the purported national immigration crisis. Even the Post has now been forced to recant and report on Toney-Finch’s hoax.

A local paper, The Mid-Hudson News, uncovered the truth with what Marshall notes was “a lot of shoe-leather reporting.”

This relatively minor story is a microcosm of our current dilemma. Today’s media environment is a Wild West of propaganda, spin, misinformation and outright lies. Along with the partisans peddling that propaganda and those lies are genuine reporters working for outlets that practice old-fashioned “shoe leather” journalism. And protecting them all are the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment.

So–what do we do?

What we clearly cannot and should not do is eliminate or constrict those First Amendment protections. The result of that would be to hand over to government the power to censor communications.

In some cases, like the recent Dominion lawsuit against Fox, libel law can be employed to punish the most egregious behaviors, but this is a very slim reed: few of those who’ve been libeled have the means to bring such suits, and they are–quite properly–very difficult to win.

Unfortunately, new rules that would make it easier to sue over misinformation would end up constraining real journalists as well as the sloppy or dishonest ones–when you are creating the “first draft of history,” it can be easy for even good reporters to make mistakes, not to mention that in the multiple gray areas of modern life, one person’s truth is another person’s lie.

The only answer I can come up with is better education and a change in the information culture–both long-term projects. Teaching critical thinking and media literacy in the schools–although highly unlikely in those fundamentalist religious schools to which our legislature sends our tax dollars–would help. Organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists that issue codes of ethics might consider “rating” outlets based upon their observance of those ethical standards.

But as long as individuals can search for and locate “facts” they find congenial, Americans will continue to inhabit alternate realities. I just don’t have an answer to “what do we do?”

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The Bar Is VERY Low

A journalist friend recently posted an article to Facebook with data that confirmed my periodic complaints about Gannett. Nieman Journalism Lab is a site supported by the Neiman Foundation, which describes itself as devoted to the elevation of journalism.

This particular report falls into the “I told you so” category. The lede really sums it all up:

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain, should wake up each morning thankful for the existence of No. 2 Alden Global Capital.

After all, who could ask for a better point of comparison? Alden is the perfect industry villain, a faceless private equity fund dedicated to nothing but cost-cutting and cashflow-draining. Its corporate website contains a total of 21 words, nine of which are “Alden,” “Global,” or “Capital.” It’s run by a secretive billionaire who last gave an interview in the 1980s — the sort of person who can own 15 mansions in Palm Beach and still think: I could really use a 16th.

If Alden is the “bar,” Gannett clears it. After all, as  a century-old newspaper company, we do expect Gannett to give a rat’s patootie about journalism. On the other hand, as the article notes,  Gannett has rarely been considered a good newspaper company:

its reputation for cheapness and cookie-cutter products go back decades. (As The New York Times described it in 1986: “a chain of mostly small and undistinguished, though highly profitable, newspapers.”) But it was at least a familiar name, run by news people and with at least some dedication to its civil role in hundreds of communities….

But “we’re better than Alden!” has its limits as a brand promise, and Gannett’s most recent annual report drives home the fact that no company has done more to shrink local journalism than it has in recent years. Let’s total up the damage — in raw numbers, if not in stories unbroken and facts not uncovered.

When Gannett merged with Gatehouse–another “vulture” company–the search for “efficiencies” deepened–and the number of employees tanked. At the time of the merger, early in 2019, the two companies had a total of 27,600 employees.

By December 31, 2019, the combined company was down to 21,255. By the end of 2020, that had dropped to 18,141. A year later: 13,800. And its most recent SEC filing reports that, as of the end of 2022, Gannett had just 11,200 U.S. employees remaining (plus another roughly 3,000 overseas, mostly in the U.K.).

In other words, Gannett has eliminated half of its jobs in four years. It’s as if, instead of merging America’s two largest newspaper chains, one of them was simply wiped off the face of the earth.

One reason for the precipitous decline was the debt Gannett assumed in order fund the merger. (A similar problem drove the decline in reporting staff when Gannett acquired the Indianapolis Star.) Taking out a giant loan at a high interest rate meant that  “hundreds of millions in revenues have had to be redirected to debt payments.”

The most jaw-dropping information in the linked post, however, was a graph showing the declines in circulation experienced by newspapers acquired by Gannett. 

The total drop reported was 66.8%–an average that our local Indianapolis Star has exceeded; Star readership has declined by a whopping 74.5%. A similar chart, tracking non-Gannett papers facing many of the same challenges, showed far less decline. As the article noted,

“There are plenty of explanations for the gap — but it’s hard not to believe that Gannett’s gutting of their editorial products hasn’t been a driving factor.”

Ya think?

Bottom line, adequate credible information about the community it serves is a newspaper’s product. When drastic cuts in newsroom personnel make it impossible to provide that product–when residents of an area can no longer turn to local journalism to find out what their government is doing or failing to do, when there aren’t enough reporters to attend important meetings and hearings–when even the tried-and-true lure of sports reporting fails to include coverage of all the local teams–why would anyone pay for that newspaper?

If I had a career producing dresses, and the dresses became progressively more shoddy and poorly constructed, people would soon stop buying them. The difference is, a failed dressmaker doesn’t endanger democratic self-government. A failed news media, however, threatens the ability of a local community to address–or even recognize–collective problems.

The good news is that the gap created by newspaper chains that pursue profits by ignoring their essential purpose are being challenged by new entries into local information markets.

The Indiana Local News Initiative is the latest media startup in Indianapolis. It joins The Capital Chronicle that debuted last July and State Affairs Indiana, that arrived in December. And last August, digital media company Axios announced plans to launch a daily email newsletter in Indianapolis.

They knew a news desert when they saw one.

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Telling It Like (I Think) It Is

I can’t decide what I think about the relatively recent phenomenal growth of Substack newsletters. I’m one of the thousands–millions?–who regularly reads Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letter from an American,” and after my sister strongly recommended Robert Hubbell, I subscribed to his daily newsletter as well.

On the one hand, these transmittals afford writers much more scope than they would have if confined to more traditional columns or “op-ed” pages. On the other hand, an individual reader’s ability to pick and choose who to follow–and to disregard arguments from people with contrary perspectives–rather obviously adds to our ability to construct and inhabit “bubbles” that protect us from conflicting points of view, and thus reinforce our own biases. 

Newsletters–and not just those from Substack–are part of the significant and growing fragmentation of our current media environment–a fragmentation that has many Americans living in incommensurate realities.

I am one of those Americans, and despite the foregoing admissions, I will admit that I enjoy getting a newsletter that expresses my own views in language I find particularly apt. That was the case with Robert Hubbell’s reaction to Donald Trump’s announcement that he is once again running for President. I am sharing his response–which includes observations with which I heartily agree–but with the admission that people like Richardson and Hubbell have become essential parts of my bubble (and that I’m not proud that I inhabit one despite genuine efforts to access contrary perspectives…)

Hubbell focused less on Trump’s rambling and low-energy speech and more on the “about faces” of some of those who have previously been prominent Trump supporters. The former President’s announcement met with a marked lack of enthusiasm from major GOP donors, and from Fox News, the NYPost, and the WSJ –a lack of enthusiasm that has been widely reported.

With respect to Murdoch’s media empire, Hubbell wrote

Each was a staunch ally of Trump through two impeachments, insurrection, bribery and sex scandals, and Trump’s criminally negligent handling of the pandemic. The fact that each has changed its news coverage and editorial policy on forty-eight hours’ notice demonstrates that they are not independent news organizations… Rather, the supposed “news organizations” are extensions of Rupert Murdoch’s ego and desire for personal power. It is a disservice to maintain the fiction of their legitimacy. It is a pretense that insults the democratic tradition of a free press.

Then there was the seeming defection of a number of those all-important major donors.


So, too, with Trump’s major donors. The media is ticking off each announcement by a hedge fund billionaire or captain of industry who will no longer contribute to Trump’s campaign. See, e.g., Axios, GOP megadonor Stephen Schwarzman defects from Trump after 2024 announcement, and Fox News, GOP megadonors want to move on from ‘three-time loser’ Trump, look to back DeSantis in 2024 presidential bid.

It is shocking that billionaires are casually mentioning their switch in loyalties as if they are describing their preferences in wine or cigars. Their corruption of the political process is grotesque and yet they are unashamed and unrepentant for their role in funding a man who attempted a coup and incited an insurrection. No apology; no “Mea culpa;” just “Next!”

 In a particularly pithy phrase, Hubbell suggests that the lesson these donors took from their support of an aspiring fascist was that they needed “a better-educated, more articulate aspiring fascist to support.”

Hubbell is quite correct in pointing out that the current exodus from Trump–even assuming it isn’t transitory– isn’t the story. The story–the lesson we observers should take away from the current spectacle–is that

the enablers and co-conspirators who nearly prevented the peaceful transfer of power have learned nothing—except that they can make more money and acquire more power by creating another Frankenstein’s monster. We cannot treat them as if they are legitimate participants in the political process. They are not. They are vultures looking for carrion.

While I appreciate his felicitous turn of phrase, what really makes Hubbell’s newsletter valuable–at least to me– is that he consistently includes suggestions for actions citizens can take. He provides answers to the recurring question: what can we citizens do? It was that aspect of his newsletter that most appealed to my sister, and now appeals to me–a roadmap of sorts that helps dispel the feelings of powerlessness that periodically overcome and depress us.

My newsletters: Richardson for historical context. Krugman for economic wisdom. Nichols for biting commentary. And Hubbell for positivity and–despite occasional lapses into legalese (he’s a lawyer)–intermittent rays of sunshine….. 

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Are We On Self-Destruct?

I am still mulling over the attack that sent Paul Pelosi to the hospital.

You will note that I have not characterized that vicious assault as an attack “on” Paul Pelosi, because that would be inaccurate. The maniac who invaded the Pelosi home was clearly intent upon finding and injuring or killing Nancy Pelosi. It was only because she wasn’t home that he turned his fury and hammer on her 82-year-old husband.

It’s bad enough that the crazy media outlets have responded by doing what they do–inventing weird and exculpatory stories entirely remote from any evidence whatever. (One “explanation” making the rounds suggests that Nancy Pelosi attacked her husband and the entire episode as reported was a cover-up. Other rightwing fantasies are equally bizarre.) But coverage from the sources we like to believe produce legitimate journalism hasn’t been much better.

As several pundits have reminded us, this was an attempted assassination of the Speaker of the U.S. House–the person who is third in line for the U.S. Presidency. Think about that.

In his newsletter, Robert Hubbell minced no words, asserting that the attack “has struck at the heart of America’s political dysfunction and mass delusion.”

Major media outlets are going out of their way to caution that “the assailant’s motives are unknown” and limiting their description of what occurred to “an attack on Paul Pelosi” without acknowledging that the intended target was the person third-in-line for the presidency of the US. Right-wing media is in full conspiracy mode, trafficking in wild and baseless claims that are insulting, defamatory, and offensive to a grieving family and a severely wounded victim. Elon Musk inflamed the situation by tweeting and deleting a bogus “opinion” article from a media outlet known for peddling bizarre conspiracy theories, e.g., that Hillary Clinton died before the 2016 election and her “body double” debated Trump

Apparently, Elon Musk tweeted a link to an “opinion” piece that was admittedly pure  speculation about what “might” have happened. According to Hubbell, Musk deleted the tweet shortly thereafter, “but not before it was exposed to his 120 million followers.”

The damage was done. No amount of truth-telling or retractions by reckless Fox affiliates will overcome the momentum created by Musk’s tweet. See NYTimes, Elon Musk, in a Tweet, Shares Link From Site Known to Publish False News and WaPo, Paul Pelosi attack prompts Elon Musk and political right to spread misinformation.

 In short order, Elon Musk and a reckless Fox affiliate converted a near-miss national tragedy into a cesspool of disinformation and delusion. In the process, the Pelosi family is being subjected to a second trauma that may be greater than the original assassination attempt and injuries suffered by Paul Pelosi.

So here we are. An estimated third of American citizens get their “information” from sources so distant from fact and reality that the term “propaganda” seems inadequate. If, as the Founders’ believed, democratic self-government requires an informed citizenry, the United States is in big trouble.

A commenter to a previous post on the state of our information environment pointed out that the ability to spread disinformation and confusion has grown with each “advance” in communication–newspapers, radio, television, movies, and now the Internet. True. The question we face is: what do we do about it? No serious person wants to abandon the First Amendment–and for that matter, we couldn’t totally suppress manufactured garbage if we tried.

And to be fair, it isn’t just America.

We are at a place in human history where a substantial portion of the population simply cannot cope with the realities, constant changes and uncertainties  of modern life. Those humans are a ready-made, eager audience for the purveyors of hate and division–and so long as there is an audience, there will be self-promoters to prey on that audience, either to make money (Alex Jones) or acquire political power (Trump/ fill in your favorite example).

My middle son has a theory that the reason we haven’t detected evidence of superior alien civilizations “out there” is because, at a certain point in the evolution of a civilization, it self-destructs. I hope he’s wrong, but the trajectory of humanity right now sure lends weight to that theory.

In less than a week, Americans will go to the polls and choose whether to continue down the path of conspiracy and theocracy–a path that will continue to facilitate the fascist fantasies being spread by Elon Musk, Fox News and their ilk, and will likely signal the end of the American Idea as we have understood it.

Even if we manage to avoid that result, we will be left with a conundrum: what do we do about the prevalence and appeal of invented realities–lies– and the people who believe and act on them?

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