Monday, January 2, 2017

We have met the reporters and they are us: Investigative journalism in the time of twitter

Broken Journalism

You probably share my view that the media, especially the so-called news channels, were complicit in Donald Trump’s winning the election. (Well, they were if “winning” is defined as getting the most electoral college votes that trumped 2.9 million votes for his opponent.)

What’s the evidence for indicting the media and what can the media do as acts of redemption in the future? This post contains sample snippets from several articles that address those questions.

The post is fairly long so here is a table of contents.
(1.0) What went wrong with journalism in the election
(2.0) What went right
(3.0) What journalists should learn from Farenthold
(4.0) What journalists must do in the future
(5.0) How to learn more about the future of political reporting on January 14th

Now let’s go to work.

(1.0) What went wrong with journalism in the election

The Daily Kos reports on a lengthy analysis at mediamatters.org on how 2016 broke political journalism. My snippets are from the original article.

After a presidential campaign season that seemed unprecedented in its length and ferocity, on Election Day 2016 there were two contenders vying to become the most powerful person in the world.

One was a conventional politician who had spent decades in public service. Her positions, philosophy, and actions were well within the norm for an American presidential candidate.

The other was a racist misogynist who ran a campaign based on hatred and vitriol and was described by leading conservatives as a proto-fascist whose rise was “perilous to the republic.” He openly undermined press freedoms, threatened the nation’s decades-long alliances, lifted up white nationalist elements to new prominence, lied constantly and brazenly, mocked the disability of a reporter, attacked a Gold Star family, was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and was accused of doing so by several, showed a frightening lack of familiarity with public policy, promised to imprison his opponent, and drew support from Russian intelligence services. He represented a fundamental break with virtually every norm in American public life.

The campaign broke political journalism. Despite the vast differences between the two candidates, the message media consumers heard from journalists was that to an equal extent, both candidates were flawed.

But the messaging went beyond that. Trump was always in the news. Clinton was not. It’s not that Clinton had nothing to say. She did. It’s just that the press, and in my opinion, especially cable news, seized on every scandalous lie that Trump uttered and gave it full headline, breaking news status. When the press did cover Clinton, her email was inevitably the topic.

(1.1) Media exposure greatly favored Trump over Clinton - and everyone else

“Did journalists create Trump? Of course not — they don’t have that kind of power,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan in her election postmortem. “But they helped him tremendously, with huge amounts of early, unfiltered exposure in the months leading up to the Republican primary season. With ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton’s email practices, including the waffling of FBI Director James B. Comey.”

As Sullivan suggests, the overwhelming, carnival-like coverage Trump received in the early days of the election gave him a huge advantage that played a key role in his rise to the Republican nomination. Trump received nearly $2 billion in media coverage through February, almost three times as much as Clinton and roughly six times as much as that of his closest Republican opponent.

“The media greatly enabled Trump, embracing the spectacle to give him vast swaths of real estate on air, online and in print,” NPR’s David Folkenflik wrote at the conclusion of the primary season.

While Trump dominated news coverage across the board, the problem was particularly apparent on the cable news channels. “Producers at several networks said they initially treated his candidacy as a joke, albeit a highly entertaining one,” BuzzFeed reported in March. “Trump’s rallies became must-see daytime and primetime television on cable, pre-empting regularly scheduled newscasts and driving day-to-day news cycle.”

In a particularly noxious example, CNN ran a live shot of Trump’s empty podium for 30 minutes when the candidate was late for a March event. This “illustrated the vacuity of the celebrity-driven frenzy that defined Trump’s early campaign,” according to Politico’s Glenn Thrush. Trump “was so much more important than any of his rivals that even his absence was more newsworthy than their presence, and the networks did nothing to dispel that view, airing his speeches in their entirety when no other candidate or even President Obama was afforded that privilege.”

(1.2) Hillary’s “damn emails”

That quote is from a line delivered by Bernie Sanders in one of the primary debates. The Washington Post has a video. Here is the summary.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said at the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Oct. 2015 that wants the news media to talk about the issues. He said, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Hillary’s] damn emails!”

The media never did get “sick and tired” of reporting on Clinton’s emails. For example, in the major newspapers, like the NY and LA Times and WSJ and WaPo, Clinton’s email out-headlined Trump by over two to one - 100 vs. 48 according to data reported in the mediamatters article. And that reporting continued to the very end of the election. My hunch is that the half-life of any of Trump’s scandals was much shorter.

(1.3) All candidates are created equally faulty

That is the fallacy known as “false equivalence” and it played out big time in this election - even though members of the media have been aware of its dangers. See my blog from 2014.

For example, in my letter to the editor in August of 20o16 I summarized a study by PolitiFact showing that two the remaining candidates, Clinton and Trump, were not equivalent when it comes to making false statements. True, both were guilty of stretching the truth, intentionally or not. But of the 200+ statements by each candidate rated by PolitiFact, 71% of Clinton’s were true while 70% of Trump’s were false.

What set me off on this was the tendency for cable news to report an egregious lie by Trump only to then cite an example of a false statement by Clinton. Given the above percentages, you’d think that an alert reporter would worry about the ease of catching Trump in a lie (70%) vs. the difficulty in finding a false statement made by Clinton (29%).

Here is a link to a video on false equivalence.

Mediamatters concludes.

… editors and executives at major media outlets failed in their responsibility to present to their audience the full picture of the election in proper context, instead providing disproportionate scrutiny to relatively minor Clinton “scandals” in a way that ultimately resulted in a skewed picture of the election.

And that’s because the political press was unable to adapt its methods and practices to a dramatically different election season. In typical elections, news outlets often treat both major presidential candidates as relatively similar – comparing their flaws, scrutinizing their respective scandals, and framing the vote as a choice between two comparable options.

But this was not a normal election between two comparable choices. That sort of equivalency could not hope to provide viewers and readers with an accurate picture of this unusual race. And on balance, the press did not rise to this unique challenge.

(1.4) Who should do the fact-checking? The stenographic theory of journalism.

I am going to use Chuck Todd as an example of how the media shirks its duty to "test the accuracy of information from all sources.” He’s been taking the position for (at least) over three years that fact-checking is not the business of the news business.

TalkingPointsMemo called him out on that position in 2013 regarding the misinformation distributed by the Republicans about the Affordable Care Act.. Fair.org picked up on it in the following snippets from Inform the Public? Not My Job, Says Chuck Todd.

Appearing on MSNBC‘s Morning Joe today (9/18/13), Todd responded to Ed Rendell’s claim that Obamacare opponents are full of misinformation about the program by explaining that this was because Republicans “have successfully messaged against it.” But wasn’t journalism’s job to expose misinformation? No, Todd insisted; if the public was misinformed about the Affordable Care Act, it was the president’s fault for not pushing back:

What I always love is people say, “Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.” No, it’s the president of the United States’ fault for not selling it.

It’s sad that NBC‘s White House correspondent thinks his job is merely to convey politicians pronouncements, with no care about whether they are true or false. In fact, scrutinizing claims, particularly those from powerful officials, is an essential part of journalism. …

Todd isn’t alone among influential journalists claiming that factchecking sources is outside their job purview. In 2004, NPR‘s Ron Elving declared that journalism was incapable of calling out the lies about John Kerry’s military record spread by the Swift Boat Veteran’s for Truth, claiming: “There is no way that journalism can satisfy those who think that Kerry is a liar or that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are liars.” Journalists’ throwing up their hands when it came to the distortion of Kerry’s military record may have determined the outcome of the 2004 election.

… It’s embarrassing to have to cite elementary principles to one the nation’s most influential reporters, but Todd should consider reviewing the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, where, under the heading “Seek Truth and Report It,” the very first tenet implores journalists to “test the accuracy of information from all sources.”

Todd has yet to heed that advice. He apparently extended his stenographic view to include moderators of the 2016 debates as reported by politicususa.com.

(2.0) What went right

There were bright spots. Investigative journalism may be diseased but it is not quite deceased. I’ll mention two journalists who lean pretty hard on their subjects - Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek and David Farenthold of the Washington Post.

Here are is an example of Eichenwald’s reporting. (For more, see this list at Newsweek.)

(2.1) The myths Democrats swallowed that cost them the presidential election

A certain kind of liberal makes me sick. These people traffic in false equivalencies, always pretending that both nominees are the same, justifying their apathy and not voting or preening about their narcissistic purity as they cast their ballot for a person they know cannot win. I have no problem with anyone who voted for Trump, because they wanted a Trump presidency. I have an enormous problem with anyone who voted for Trump or Stein or Johnson—or who didn’t vote at all—and who now expresses horror about the outcome of this election. If you don’t like the consequences of your own actions, shut the hell up.

Let me explain this as clearly as I can: In reporting on Trump and his campaign, my job has never been to promote or oppose his election. I believed the media was letting him slide toward Election Day without conducting the normal examination performed on all presidential candidates, while instead wasting time on idiotic spectacles like Trump’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show. So I dug in, working full-time from July up to election eve, without weekends off, missing family events. In exchange, my family and I received multiple death threats and endured many online attacks. Yet we stayed committed to my work so that the public could have as much information as possible before they cast their ballot on who should the leader of the free world.

The problem this election season has been that liberal Democrats—just like too many Republicans—have been consumed by provably false conspiracy theories. They have trafficked in them on Facebook and Twitter, they have read only websites that confirm what they want to believe, and they have, in the past few months, unknowingly gulped down Russian propaganda with delight. In other words, just like the conservatives they belittle, they have been inside a media bubble that blocked them from reality. So before proceeding, let’s address a few fantasies about this campaign:

  1. The Myth of the All-Powerful Democratic National Committee
  2. The Myth That Sanders Would Have Won Against Trump

(Check out Eichenwald’s article for puncture wounds inflicted against those myths.)

Of course, there will still be those voters who snarl, “She didn’t earn my vote,” as if somehow their narcissism should override all other considerations in the election. That, however, is not what an election is about. Voters are charged with choosing the best person to lead the country, not the one who appeals the most to their egos.

If you voted for Trump because you supported him, congratulations on your candidate’s victory. But if you didn’t vote for the only person who could defeat him and are now protesting a Trump presidency, may I suggest you shut up and go home. Adults now need to start fixing the damage you have done.

(2.2) David Fahrenthold tells the behind-the-scenes story of his year covering Trump.

Farenthold’s account is a fascinating look inside the world of an investigative reporter. You might remember that Farenthold was the reporter who, acting on a tip, broke the story of the Access Hollywood tape showing Trump saying, among other misogynistic things, “Grab ’em by the p—y.” That story was so YUGE that the traffic it spawned brought down the Washington Post server.

But my favorite is how Farenthold tracked the portraits of Trump that Trump bought with money from the Trump Foundation. I’ll jump in towards the end of his account.

The Google search revealed a new portrait of Trump. This one was four feet tall, painted by Miami artist Havi Schanz. After a phone call, I confirmed that Trump had purchased it in 2014 at a charity auction run by the Unicorn Children’s Foundation. Once again, he had the Trump Foundation pay the bill.

I needed to find that portrait. I turned to my Twitter followers, putting out a photo of the new $10,000 portrait.

That was at 10:34 a.m.

By early evening I knew where it was.

“The Havi Painting was at Doral National in Miami, you can see two separate pics that tourists have taken of it,” wrote Allison Aguilar.

I’ve never met Aguilar. I learned later that she is a former HR manager who is now a stay-at-home mother in Atlanta, writing short stories on the side. Days before, looking for the $20,000 portrait, she had scoured the website for Trump’s golf resort at Doral, in Florida, scanning more than 500 user-generated photos of the resort’s rooms, restaurants and golf course.

About halfway through, she had spotted another portrait in a photo, hanging on a wall at the resort.

Then she saw my tweet, saying that I was now looking for that portrait, too.

“Oh, now that I’ve seen,” Aguilar remembered thinking.

The TripAdvisor photo she found was dated February 2016.

Was the portrait still there?

The answer was provided by another stranger.

Enrique Acevedo, an anchor at the Spanish-language network Univision, saw my tweet that night, broadcasting that Aguilar had traced the portrait to Doral. Acevedo realized that Doral was just a few blocks from the Univision studios. He booked a room for that night.

“I used points,” Acevedo said. “I didn’t want to … spend any money on Trump’s property, so I used points.” After his newscast ended, Acevedo checked in and started quizzing the late-night cleaning crews.

“Have you seen this picture?” he asked. “They said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s downstairs.’ ”

Bingo. Acevedo found the $10,000 portrait, paid for with charity money, hanging on the wall of the resort’s sports bar.

“Hey @Fahrenthold just checked and the portrait is still hanging at the Champions Lounge. How much did you say it cost the Trump Foundation?” he wrote on Twitter that night.

All of that — from my first request for help to Acevedo’s discovery — had taken less than 14 hours. Together, we had discovered Trump doing exactly what the law said he couldn’t do: using his charity’s money to decorate his resort.

(3.0) What journalists should learn from Farenthold

Here is what The Atlantic has to say about that.

Fahrenthold’s work offers lessons for other journalists covering the president-elect.

First, as he notes, his technique was “a way to get around the blockade Trump puts up around himself, a way to spread questions far and wide.” That may be particularly important in covering a politician who denies access to media outlets whose reporting he finds objectionable.

Second, Fahrenthold advises, “Don’t focus on what Trump says. Focus on the results of his actions. Stay in your lane and focus on one particular area.”

Crowdsourcing, of course, isn’t new. A notable earlier example was Talking Points Memo’s prize-winning work on the politicization of federal prosecutors during the George W. Bush administration. ProPublica and a few other news organizations have been using it to great effect in the past several years.

But as a technique, inviting the audience to be part of the journalism—beyond sending photos and videos—has been bizarrely under-used. That’s why I’m particularly glad to see outlets like The New York Times moving to deploy their audiences in the service of better journalism.

Fahrenthold and his Post colleagues—and journalists more widely—are now preparing for a Trump presidency. The president-elect has already made plain his hostility to many journalistic outlets, if not to honest journalism as a concept. But Fahrenthold’s experimentation suggests that by opening up to readers, reporters can not only deliver better stories—but also help rebuild the trust they’ll need to ensure that their reporting has the impact they desire.

(4.0) What journalists must do in the future

From media matters:

Even after 16 months on the campaign trail, political journalists never figured out how to accurately depict the unprecedented nature of Trump’s candidacy. Now they must find a way to reckon with and report on a president who has no regard for the freedom of the press or the norms of his office.

(4.1) Priority #1: Protect reality, insist on facts as the basis for reporting

Daily Star columnist Tim Steller offers the way forward, Under Trump, journalists must insist on reality.

I’ve been reading analyses, talking to outsiders and colleagues, engaging on Facebook and otherwise trying to figure out what the issues are for American journalism now and where we at the Star go from here.

The problem isn’t just that news organizations lined up against Trump in their endorsements and some of their coverage. It’s that Trump and the dynamics surrounding his win represent a rain of blows against traditional American journalism.

For those of us who work in the so-called “legacy me dia” — newspapers and longstanding TV and radio networks — these blows represent a threat to our livelihoods by turning a segment of the public against us. But to the country at large, the changes threaten our democratic way of governing.

The most obvious problem is the proliferation of “fake news.” These are stories people share on social media that are not just biased or erroneous in some way, but completely made up. This year, most of them were against Clinton. One of the most widely read fake stories claims that emails exposed by WikiLeaks showed Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.

But I’m starting to grasp that “fake news” is a symptom, not the original problem. Part of the reason for the problem is that politicians like to frame reality in the way most beneficial to them — and Trump takes this tendency to extremes. He creates an alternate reality with his statements and tweets, one that his followers are eager to believe.

One of the most glaring examples was this Nov. 27 tweet from Trump: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Many experts pointed out there was no evidence of millions of people voting illegally. It hardly matters. When Trump says something, his dedicated followers accept it — and debunking by journalists only serves to discredit their news organizations further in the supporters’ eyes.

Just as important as Trump’s efforts at creating alternate realities is everybody’s natural tendency toward confirmation bias. Almost all of us find it easier to believe news that we agree with than news that challenges our preconceptions. Thanks to the proliferation of news — or news-like — websites, no one needs to confront facts that could change their minds.

… our best road forward is through keeping up our efforts at fact-based reporting that can be trusted while adding increasing representation of the community we cover and stepping up the bravery in our reporting. These days, just being factual is a distinguishing feature in and of itself.

Still, squaring neutrality with bravery will be where we run into the toughest problems in the era of Trump.

Trump’s constant rousing of mobs against the press during the campaign, and his efforts to create a chaos of alternate realities through his words, put us in a place where we can’t always be neutral and must be brave. They are also signs of an aspiring authoritarian.

I hope Steller would agree that “we” - the journalists - must take responsibility for the factualness of their reporting.

(4.2) ’This is not normal’: Kurt Eichenwald blasts reporters for being afraid of questioning Trump.

Snippets are from rawstory.com.

Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald on Saturday said journalists needed to “grow a backbone” to deal with President-elect Donald Trump.

MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart asked Eichenwald how the media should deal with Trump’s “mixed messaging” in regards to his charity.

“The first thing we need to do is face reality,” Eichenwald replied. “If Eric Trump is so upset, write a check. We’ve got to stop acting like everything that happens to this guy when they complain about how difficult it is, if they want to give to charity, give to charity. They can write the money themselves, they don’t need to raise it from us.”

“Secondly, and this is the most important, we have a president-elect who has been treated completely differently from anybody else,” he continued. “The press has unfortunately gotten into this thing where they’re afraid of propaganda outlets like Fox News coming in and calling them biased. There is no bias here. We have got to grow a backbone. We have got to demand press conferences. We have got to stop covering his tweets like they’re news.”

“This man has some very serious questions to answer,” Eichenwald said. “We’re getting to the point we should start to wonder, is the problem he can’t answer? That he doesn’t have the intelligence to answer? That he’s afraid to answer? We have to bear down on him and let the American public know that this is not normal. When the Foxes of the world object to acting like a normal reporter as being biased we should just point them out and say, they’re lying, just ignore them.”

(4.3) David Farenthold looks back and ahead.

A German reporter asked Farenthold "Do you feel like your work perhaps did not matter at all?”

I didn’t feel like that.

It did matter. But, in an election as long and wild as this, a lot of other stories and other people mattered, too. I did my job. The voters did theirs. Now my job goes on. I’ll seek to cover Trump the president with the same vigor as I scrutinized Trump the candidate.

And now I know how to do it.

(5.0) How to learn more about the future of political reporting on January 14th

The January 14th program of the Democratic Club of the Santa Rita Area (DCSRA) will be held at our conference room #203 in the Green Valley Continental Shopping Mall from 3:00 P.M. till 4:30 P.M.  

The theme of our program is _“The Role Of The Media In The Election And Their Responsibility Going Forward.”_  There are three panelists scheduled.   Sarah Geracht Gassen of the Daily Star, Andrea Kelly of AZPM Public Television, and John C. Scott of KEVT Progressive Radio will be on the panel.  Our moderator is Bill Maki, former educator and current political blogger.

A question Q & A will follow with topics that will include:
False Equivalence
Fact Checking
Free Exposure In Media For Trump
Fake News Vs. Legitimate News

A wine and cheese reception will follow our program and you are cordially invited to attend.

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