You’ve heard the expression “feed the beast?” Read what happens when the beast is fed.
From: Desperately Seeking Mitt by Wells Tower in the August, 2012 issue of GQ comes this account of how a campaign “gaffe” is first spotted by a press pack hungry for fresh news. On the other side of the excerpt I’ll have a brief comment.
… Back at the bus, the massive news is that an AP reporter has dug up a wire story about Mitt’s visit that day to the racetrack at Daytona. The story, buried deep on the sports wire, contains the now infamous quote: “I have some great friends who are NASCAR-team owners.”
A sports journalist evidently got the quote down at the track. The AP reporter, whose name is Kasie, well aware of the shitstorm the quote potentially poses for Romney, tracks down the sportswriter’s number and calls him as he’s eating dinner somewhere to be sure the quote is solid, unedited, and national-press-bus-consumption-grade stuff.
When he e-mails her the audio file, Kasie calls out to the bus, “Asked if he follows NASCAR, [Romney] said, ‘Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends who are NASCAR-team owners.’ The quote is whole and altogether. No ellipses!”
“Wow,” says Barbaro of The New York Times. “Can we use it?”
“You can use it,” says Kasie.
Within seconds, everybody has gobbled it up: the Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, Good Morning America, some bloggers, NPR. Ari Shapiro is already recording a spot citing the quote for tomorrow morning’s broadcast, which he records under his jacket in the seat behind me: “…he may have done some damage by drawing attention to his wealth once again.”
Some television person is saying, “We definitely want to make sure that this gets into all the shows tomorrow.”
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” someone shouts.
Now what’s getting the reporters so excited is the amazingly good “fit” between what Romney just said about NASCAR owners and what they call “a narrative that’s out there…” which in this case is rich guy out of touch with ordinary Americans.
You’re not supposed to say stuff that confirms a damaging narrative like that, but here Romney just did! Bang: that’s a gaffe. And the reporters don’t have to trim or snip or wedge the quote into place to make it fit the pre-existing narrative. It’s perfect as is. Thus the excited cry: “No ellipses!” and the less articulate: “Oh, my God!”
The definitive clip on how the media should handle mass murderers.
At least it is in my opinion. Watch til the end for the payoff. (It’s only 2:48)
It’s true that these crimes have to be reported; we don’t want to be left in the dark. But it’s not true that they have to be pumped up into a big story or given wall-to-wall coverage on CNN. In Denver, it’s a huge story. But in the UK?
What bothers me most about the coverage of these things is the atmosphere of excitement that creeps in. The tone should be business-like, informational, the voice of someone resigned to the fact that crimes like this happen but determined to deny the killer any hint of glamour. An excess of sobriety to frustrate his craving for notoriety.
People who follow political coverage know about the tradition of the fact check. That’s when a political figure makes a dubious claim and pro journalists dig into it, trying to determine if it can be rated true, false, half true, etc.
But there’s also the fact chuck. Yes. That’s when a political figure makes a dubious claim and the journalists look at it, shrug, and find other people who claim the opposite is true. (Because that’s being fair, right?) Then they chuck the whole problem at us, as if to say: We have no idea who’s right, but here’s what they’re saying. We can’t figure it out, maybe you can!
Do I have an example to nail down the concept of the fact chuck? Well, of course. Yesterday the AP saw fit to report this story: Arpaio: Obama birth record ‘definitely fraudulent’. You know the drill:
Investigators for an Arizona sheriff’s volunteer posse have declared that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate is definitely fraudulent.
Members of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s posse said in March that there was probable cause that Obama’s long-form birth certificate released by the White House in April 2011 was a computer-generated forgery.
Now, Arpaio says investigators are positive it’s fraudulent.
So that happened. Then the AP found people who are equally positive that the “fraudulent!” charges are fraudulent:
“President Obama was born in Honolulu and his birth certificate is valid,” Joshua A. Wisch, a special assistant to Hawaii’s attorney general, said in a statement. “Regarding the latest allegations from a sheriff in Arizona, they are untrue, misinformed, and misconstrue Hawaii law.”
Wisch also said that “not only are Hawaii’s vital records some of the best managed, but they also have some of the strongest restrictions on access to prevent identity theft and fraud.”
See? We’re nice and balanced. So it’s time for the chuck!
Obama released a copy of his long-form birth certificate in an attempt to quell citizenship questions.
Courts have rebuffed lawsuits over the issue.
Now that you have seen the fact chuck demonstrated, won’t you bring other examples to my attention? Much obliged.
Hat tip, Lars Olsson.
This is a fun clip. Watch what happens when Luke Russert, a legacy admit at NBC News (his father was Tim Russert) is asked by MSNBC host Martin Bashir to reflect not on what politicians in Washington have said but what he, Luke Russert, actually thinks is true.
That simple demand causes his systems to start shutting down. Luke begins smiling wildly, as if someone had just cracked a very good joke. Then his uncontrolled smiling turns to frat house laughter as he tries to fight off the internal shut down and form some sort of coherent reply.
What he probably wants to say is… I don’t get paid to think like this, Martin. I just ask the questions, repeat the talking points, and explain the political maneuvering. And you’re aware of that, so what is this shit?…. But he can’t. He does manage to get on firmer ground with the sort of observation he’s permitted to share: “It’s a very effective talking point.” That’s an assessment he can confidently make.
Now it’s true that the MSNBC host came at him with a hotly contentious claim (aren’t the Republicans admitting that they are the party of the two percent?) and tried to put him on the spot. Here’s the New York Times struggling to adjudicate the same claim: A Fuller Picture in the Small-Business Tug of War. Complicated!
My point is not that Luke should be able to improvise a fact check like this on live TV. Or that he is somehow in the pocket of the Republicans. No. Luke Russert here shows how unbearably thin his knowledge is— I mean his knowledge of anything beyond warring talking points. For in Luke’s mind, the reality of the situation is like a bizarre intrusion into the politics of it. Asked to cut through the talking points to what’s true, he recommends inviting House Speaker John Boehner on the show. As if that would help.
Like I said: fun clip!
If Mitt Romney were running a “post-truth” campaign, would the political press even report it?
Link: Boston Globe, Mitt Romney stayed at Bain 3 years longer than he stated. ”Firm’s 2002 filings identify him as CEO, though he said he left in 1999.” (Fallout.)
Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a “post-truth” era and actually campaigned that way: Would political reporters in the mainstream press figure it out and tell us?
I say no. They would not tell us. Instead, they would do what the Globe did here: try to nail the candidate on specific misstatements that can be documented. Which is good and necessary and difficult and contentious and honorable. So go, Boston Globe! And don’t forget to credit others who have done similar work.
But what of a strategy that incorporates…
1.) The lessons of the climate change debate, which is that you can run a political campaign against verifiable facts, and thereby weaken those facts in the public’s mind?
2.) The Palin method, which is that you can invent stuff and stick to it when it is shown to be false because culture war politics feeds off the noise and friction when fictional claims are fact-checked by the mainstream media?
3.) David Frum’s observation: “Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”
4. Plain old-fashioned secrecy, as in: don’t release information, don’t explain.
I think there’s ample evidence that the Romney forces have figured much of this out. And so even though we have a political press that believes itself to be a savvy judge of campaign strategy, here is one strategy that will go unnamed and un-described because (and this may be the cleverest part of the strategy!…) a post-truth campaign for president falls into the category of too big to tell.
Meaning: It feels too partisan. It exposes the press to too much criticism. It messes with the “both sides do it” narrative that political journalists have mastered: and deeply believe in. And so Romney will be fact checked, his campaign will push back from time to time, the fact checkers will argue among themselves, and the post-truth premise will sneak into common practice without penalty or recognition, even though there is nothing covert about it.
Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, made up a story about his victimization by the New York Times.
Seriously. “Made it up” is not too strong a term. As best we can determine, it never happened. But it’s important to understand that he thinks it happened. Because this expresses so well what Fox News Channel sells: resentment news.
In a speech at Ohio University, Ailes told this anecdote to former Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander.
Roger Ailes: What if you got up on a Thursday morning and the front page of The New York Times said you were going to be indicted on Monday. How would you feel about that? Let’s assume you hadn’t done anything and don’t know anything about it. That happened to me. I got up on a Thursday morning and it said Roger will be indicted on Monday. … And do you know what they used for their source? They said somebody was overheard in the waiting room of a Barbados airport saying it. That was their source for that story.
Andy Alexander: Did you call them on it?
Roger Ailes: No.
Andy Alexander: Why not?
Roger Ailes: Because they’re a bunch of lying scum and they’re not going to do anything about it. They did it on purpose, they did it deliberately and they didn’t have anything. I’m sure they couldn’t produce the guy in the Barbados airport.
Actually, it’s Ailes that can’t produce this front page story because it is fiction. It was formed in his mind through a fusion of two separate events. (Brian Stelter, who reports on TV for the Times, says via Twitter: “the Times never reported that.”)
The first event is this story in the New York Times: Fox News Chief, Roger Ailes, Urged Employee to Lie, Records Show. It reads: “After the publishing powerhouse Judith Regan was fired by HarperCollins in 2006, she claimed that a senior executive at its parent company, News Corporation, had encouraged her to lie two years earlier to federal investigators who were vetting Bernard B. Kerik for the job of homeland security secretary.” That senior executive, the story says, was Ailes.
About an indictment, the Times reported: “Depending on the specifics, the taped conversation could possibly rise to the level of conspiring to lie to federal officials, a federal crime, but prosecutors rarely pursue such cases, said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia University law professor and a former federal prosecutor.”
No… AILES ABOUT TO BE INDICTED. Instead, “prosecutors rarely pursue such cases.”
So that happened. Then something else happened. A financial blogger, Barry Ritholtz, published this at his site:
Here’s what I learned recently: Someone I spoke with claimed that Ailes was scheduled to speak at their event in March, but canceled. It appears that Roger’s people, ostensibly using a clause in his contract, said he “cannot appear for legal reasons.”
I asked “What, precisely, does that mean?”
The response: “Roger Ailes will be indicted — probably this week, maybe even Monday.”
You read it here first …
And the rumor spread. But not to the front page of the New York Times.
See what Ailes did? In his imavictim mind, he mapped the Ritholtz post onto the Times story about his name surfacing in court documents and created a fiction: that the New York Times falsely indicted him on the front page, relying on some bathroom conversation in Barbados. And for this (imaginary) crime, Ailes called (real) New York Times reporters “a bunch of lying scum.”
Now for the extra twist. Ailes had to apologize for the “lying scum” comment. Well, sort of. Not really. I mean he did it in the most weasely way possible. He got Howard Kurtz of CNN and the Daily Beast to anonymously quote a “senior Fox News executive” claiming that Roger feels bad about the whole thing: Ailes Regrets ‘Scum’ Attack on NYT.
Ailes himself couldn’t apologize, because that’s not the kind of guy he is. But this was before we knew how fictional his front page resentment narrative was. No one can figure out what Kurtz was doing when he granted anonymity to a Fox person for the purpose of apologizing on behalf of the boss (which is not exactly whistle-blowing, if you follow me…) but: there it is!
And now, media watchers, we get to see if a shawdowy Fox News executive will ring up Kurtz and request anonymity so he can correct the record about the front page Times story that never happened.
Voicelessness is over at USA Today, according to its new boss.
Larry Kramer was recently put in charge of USA Today. He turned down the top editor’s job because he didn’t see that position as a way to make real change. That’s when Gannett called back to offer him President and Publisher instead. He took it. Kramer is a smart and extremely capable executive, both an entrepreneur and a journalist, a newspaper editor and a digital guy.
In his initial round of press interviews after accepting the job, Kramer has said that one of the first changes he will make is to introduce more voice and more voices—singular and plural—into USA Today journalism.
That certainly makes sense to me. But it’s a big shift for mainstream journalism, and especially for USA Today. When it launched it refused even to have a voice. For example: no editorial page. Quick: name a USA Today columnist or blogger you follow. You probably can’t, because USA Today has always been an editor’s paper—very digestible news is the big idea—not a home for writers or a school for sensibility. But Kramer is saying that this cannot be the way forward: not enough added value. And he’s in charge.
I’ve requested an interview with Larry Kramer about some of the things he’s said on the subject. In the meantime, here are the key quotes.
I think we are going to have to move toward more pronounced voices. One of the definite changes in media in the last few years: great media brands have become much more a compendium of multiple voices, not just one voice. I think both USA Today and CNN for a long time concentrated on the news being the voice. Now I think with Twitter and with all the different ways news is disseminated, people are looking for a little bit more of an interesting take on a story.
We really can’t survive if all we do is commodity journalism. We have to do things that… we say things differently, we help people understand things. Investigative reporting is going to be a huge part of what we do on an ongoing basis, not less but more. But also explanatory journalism, the things that people need. And we have to give it to them differently that we used to. It isn’t going to be just about a five-page package in the newspaper. It’s going to be interactivity. It s going to be: you can get into this story as deeply as you like.
Kramer says USA Today needs to distinguish itself. “We don’t just need to have a voice,” he says. “We need to be an orchestra of voices…”
Sports accounts for about half of usatoday.com’s unique users — those who visit the site, Kramer says. The company is making acquisitions to strengthen that brand, and Kramer plans to hire “unique voices…”
“You have got to have original content in tone or voice, otherwise you’re spinning your wheels. Don’t give me two paragraphs on the Giants game. Tell me what’s wrong with that pitcher’s arm.”
“What we need here is what we haven’t had before — a lot of strong voices,” Kramer said with a sense of urgency. “Here, it was just the USA Today brand by definition…”
Kramer intends for the new USA Today brand to be a “compendium” of “strong voices” and “content you can only get here.”
Q: What are the first moves coming in?
More distinctive voices in several areas…. We have begun the process in sports, but I want to boost coverage of the changing media landscape, the arts — including all forms of video entertainment, politics from outside the beltway, business and finance, entrepreneurism, advertising and marketing, education. I’d like us to be more complete and more outspoken in several areas, including stories about the impact of actions by government and business.
Q: You’ve said you “love the brand” and “what it stands for”…. What does the brand stand for?
It’s America’s storyteller. I really want us to engage the country in the discussions they are already having about many of those topics. They need both curators of the discussion that is already out there, and new voices that add something to the discussion. We should be both.
Kramer seems to be saying that the View from Nowhere has become a liability. Again: I agree. But overthrowing that approach isn’t as simple as hiring a few bloggers or loosening the rules for writers. We’re talking about ideological change within an occupation that sees itself as having no ideology. That’s… tricky. And there’s no guarantee that people who excelled at the old way will be any good at the new.
Finally: what’s the politics of USA Today? The answer always used to be: to have no politics! That was the easy answer. Now that the easy answer isn’t good enough, what replaces it? We don’t know.
Tom Brokaw blasts the White House Correspondents Association dinner.
On Meet the Press Sunday, Tom Brokaw of NBC News, an iconic figure in broadcast journalism, ripped into the annual ritual that media people in DC call “the prom.” They call it that because they hope that their gentle ridicule will defuse some of the rage that they know the event inspires outside the Beltway club.
Brokaw essentially told them that the game is up. The people he meets on his book tours are saying: “What’s happened with political coverage in America? We don’t feel connected to it.” The White House Correspondents Association dinner, he said, symbolically “separates the press from the people they’re supposed to serve.” Brokaw acknowledged that he was a charter member of the club. But… “It is time to to rethink it.”
Here’s what gave Brokaw’s comments some teeth: Sitting right next to him were two people who would have to do the rethinking. NBC’s Chuck Todd is one of the stars of the dinner as perhaps the world’s most visible White House correspondent. Brokaw said he loves hanging with George Clooney as much as the next guy, but is this really what we should be doing? On March 18, host David Gregory had interviewed George Clooney for Meet the Press, so obviously his answer is: yeah!
Gregory’s only audible response to his senior colleague was: “point taken.” Todd said nothing. Then it was on to the next thing. Gregory had a perfect chance to reflect on Brokaw’s criticisms in a small web-only feature he does after the show; he declined to do so. But he did find time to plug his interview with Robert DeNiro.