This post is about journalistic process—how the work of reporting actually happens. For illustrative purposes, I will focus on the appointment of Gen. McMaster as National Security Advisor.
Now, very few of us had ever heard of him before this weekend, when he appeared at Trump’s side. Naturally, we were curious about him. Who is he? What has he done? What sort of General? Most of all, we wanted to know about his character—for “character is destiny,” as Heraclitus noted 2,500 years ago.
We didn’t have to wait very long to learn about the General’s character. Within moments, literally, of the official announcement, we heard the most glowing encomiums about him.
“A smart strategic thinker,” Forbes told us.
“The smartest and most capable military officer of his generation,” CNN proclaimed.
“Widely respected,” said the New York Times.
“Fiercely outspoken,” said the Washington Post.
“The Army’s smartest officer,” said Slate.
“A long and distinguished career,” said NBC.
“A cutting-edge strategist,” said the Washington Times.
Now, McMaster may well be all these things. I don’t know. But, as a journalist myself, who understands how reporting works, here’s my question: How did these media come up so quickly with all this flattery? How do they know these things before they’ve even had time to do basic research? I mean, within minutes of the appointment, every media outlet—right and left, print, broadcast and digital—had McMaster walking on water.
I’m not talking about fast info on things like what books he’s written, what commands he’s held, and other aspects of his curriculum vitae. I mean the stuff about his character. How do reporters come to these lofty conclusions almost immediately?
Think about it: If you’re a reporter, you should have at least 3 sources for most stories–more, even, for something this big. You have to call them or text or email them, or even meet with them. It takes time; they don’t always get back to you instantly when you leave a message. Or someone will say, “You know, I’m not the best person for what you’re looking for. Try ____.” You can check out Google and Wikipedia, but those, too, take time, and are not always reliable. Journalism doesn’t happen fast; it’s not microwaved food, it’s a slow-cooked stew. And yet, we saw absolute unanimity about McMaster, in little more than the time it takes to blink.
One explanation I’ve heard for this phenomenon is that McMaster is well-known among journalistic circles, so that the Big Reporters at Big Media have been acquainted with him for years. I “get” that. When I was a wine journalist, there were certain people in the industry I called all the time—and so did the other writers—because they were credentialed, and would take the time to answer questions, both on and off the record. Such individuals are worth their weight in gold to reporters, who are always on deadline and need reputable people to quote.
Still, I always was aware of the downside: you have to be very careful about your sources. You may like them, you may respect them, you may trust them—but never forget that they, too, have agendas.
I don’t know what McMaster’s agenda is, if he has one. He may be just the right guy to control Trump’s impulses (although, to be honest, I doubt it). But we should wonder about the swiftness with which these glowing accolades were showered upon McMaster. In this era of fake news, and especially with an administration addicted to it, we need to demand the most rigorous standards of reporting.
Yesterday, we saw how Hitler demolished Germany’s free press, resulting in dictatorship, world war, the destruction of Germany, and Hitler’s demise by his own hand, as his empire collapsed around him–as evil empires are wont to do. Today, here’s an example of how one media organization–Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal–is conspiring with Donald J. Trump to destroy the truthful reporting upon which American journalism always has rested.
Having the rightwing Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel get the first interview with Scott Pruitt, Trump’s new Environmental Protection Agency czar, is like having Der Stürmer, one of the official Nazi propaganda magazines, do a profile of Heinrich Himmler on what a good guy he was. In other words, don’t expect any hard-hitting questions, or challenges to demonstrably false assertions.
Strassel issues her first lie right away, when she claims that Pruitt is not a “fierce conservative…who views the agency in a hostile light.” Really? Who was it who sued the EPA at least 13 times? Pruitt. Who says that climate change isn’t anything to worry about? Pruitt. Who has been a shill for the oil and gas industry? Pruitt.
True, in the interview, Pruitt tosses out a few smokescreens to make himself sound less extreme than his record proves he is. For example, he vows—or maybe that’s not the right word, he mentions 1,300 Superfund sites that need to be cleaned up—an EPA responsibility. But whose administration has pledged to slash EPA’s funding? Yes, it’s his boss, Trump, who during the campaign called the EPA “a disgrace” and will likely fire 50% of its employees, according to the person who led his transition team on EPA matters. That would be in keeping with Pruitt’s environmental philosophy; when he was Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he “eliminated the environmental law unit of his office.”
By following this policy that benefits shareholders rather than protecting (as in Environmental Protection Agency) Americans from dirty air and polluted water, Pruitt will do a lot of harm. He is going to “withdraw the Clean Power Plan,” Obama’s premier climate law designed to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. He will kill the 2015 Waters of the United States rule, part of the Clean Water Act, which lets the EPA protect “wetlands, territorial seas, rivers and tributaries, ponds, lakes and bays,” as if clean water were repugnant to Republicans. Pruitt called the legality of both the CPP and the WUS into question; he sued the EPA over them.
How about carbon dioxide, the leading gas associated with the greenhouse effect and global warming? Says Strassel, “Mr. Pruitt says he won’t prejudge the question,” as if there’s not already more than enough evidence for any reasonable person to arrive at a conclusion. That makes Pruitt sound fair-minded; nobody wants an administrator who will “prejudge” issues. But: Will Mr. Pruitt prejudge the question of whether Adam and Eve and little Cain and Abel played with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden? He may well believe it. Pruitt, a Baptist deacon whose first job, out of law school, was founding something called Christian Legal Services, apparently believes that even if there is climate change, God’s creation, Earth, will “self-correct” in time to save us—hence, man need do nothing. Pressed by Democrats during his confirmation hearings to state whether he believes in the reality of climate change, Pruitt, no doubt due to his religious beliefs, refused to answer. More study is needed, he told Bernie Sanders—to Sanders’ evident astonishment. In Washington, “more study” means “kick the can down the road until everybody forgets about it.”
To Strassel, Pruitt “defies the stereotype of the fierce conservative who wants to destroy the agency he runs.” (“Defies”? Tell that to the EPA employees who are “coming to work in tears” before the massacre begins.) Defensively, Strassel predicts that Pruitt will encounter “considerable hostility” in implementing his plans. From whom? The union that represents EPA’s “bureaucracy.”
Now, “bureaucracy” is one of those dog whistles conservatives love when they’re talking about civil servants who actually believe in the mission of the agencies that employ them. Strassel’s funniest line—although I don’t think she meant it to be—is “these bureaucrats have the ability to sabotage his leadership.” Another dog-whistle, that word “sabotage.” Makes EPA’s employees sound like terrorists. How would Strassel describe what the Republican Congress and attack machine did to Obama? “Sabotage” would be accurate (and Strassel was one of the most vicious writers in her hating on Obama and Hillary). Even more ironic is Pruitt’s accusation that President Obama’s EPA believed that that “the States are a vessel of Federal will. They were aggressive about dictating to the States and displacing their authority.”
Yes, we all know that Republicans love state’s rights! Question time: Will President Trump allow states to determine which undocumented immigrants stay? Will President Trump allow states to bring in Muslims from the seven countries, if his ban passes? Will President Trump leave it to states to allow women to have abortions? Will President Obama allow the states and cities to have sanctuary policies? Is President Trump going to leave it to the states to determine if a florist or baker can discriminate against gay people? Will Trump allow states to retain Obamacare if they want to?
So much for state’s rights.
So, more than a little Orwellian doublespeak. This “opinion” piece is really extraordinary for Strassel’s hagiographic fawning on her subject–an embarrassment for someone purporting to be a journalist. But Strassel is hardly the only one at the Journal who has tossed aside real reporting in favor of propaganda, which is why it’s the Der Stürmer of American newspapers.
For a good part of 2016, the Wall Street Journal reflected Rupert Murdoch’s discomfort with Trump’s candidacy. His election took them by surprise, as it did with Democrats. Evidently, a memo drifted down from Murdoch HQ after the election: change course. It’s amusing, now, to see writers like Strassel contorting themselves to make nice to the new POTUS. A deal of some kind has gone down: Trump, notably, hasn’t included the Wall Street Journal in his scathing criticism of other newspapers, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. He doesn’t have to: they’re doing his dirty work for him.
How Hitler did it: A Lesson for Trump
1925, From Mein Kampf: Hitler: “The Arbeiter-Zeitung [newspaper is a] concentrated solution of lies…The so-called press is artificial…a blemish upon liberal democracy…indecent…My revulsion of the…press became unlimited…It is of paramount interest to the state and the nation to prevent these newspaper scribblers…The state, therefore, has the duty of preventing any mischief. It must particularly exercise strict control over the press. With ruthless determination [the state] must place [the press] in the service of the state and the nation. The state must not forget that all means must serve an end; it must not let itself be confused by the drivel about so-called ‘freedom of the press’…”
Jan. 30, 1933: Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany.
Feb. 4, 1933: German Parliament passes “Ordinance for the protection of the German people.” Gives Hitler power to ban newspapers of his political rivals. Violators subject to arrest and detainment without charge.
Feb. 8, 1933: “The purge began.” Jacques Delarue, “The History of the Gestapo,” 1962.
Feb. 27, 1933: Reichstag [German Parliament] fire. Nazis blame it on Communist terrorists.
Feb. 28, 1933: German Parliament passes Reichstag Fire Decree, in the name of combating Communist terror. Nazis immediately outlaw the Communist press. Article 1 of the Decree suspends the Weimar Constitution’s provisions for press freedom. Among newspapers banned: Vorwärts, run by the Social Democratic Party. (Hitler had sued Vorwärts in 1923 and won a libel case.)
Spring, 1933: Control of newspapers given to Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, Hitler’s Bannon. From the book “The Nazi Dictatorship” (1936): “Dr. Goebbels…had extensive experience in reviling the ‘gutter press.’…The editorial and news staffs of all papers were gleichgeshaltet [re-organized]…by the appointment of Nazis to responsible supervisory positions…local censors were appointed…The entire contents of every paper must be approved before it can go to press…Goebbels decided that the sensibilities of the public…must be protected.”
Oct. 4, 1933: Reich Press Law passed. Makes newspapers “servants of the state.” Jewish and liberal editors fired. Among papers shut down was the liberal publication, Vossische Zeitung—Germany’s equivalent of the New York Times—which had been founded in 1704. The only newspapers remaining in Germany are Nazi-owned or oriented, like Der Stürmer, which fomented hatred of Jews.
Jan. 4, 1934: Hitler promises to make Germany “great” again.
Oct. 16, 1946: Julius Streicher, founder and publisher of Der Stürmer, found guilty of Crimes Against Humanity, hung at Nuremberg.
Feb. 18, 2017: Donald J. Trump, at political rally in Florida: “[The media] just don’t want to report the truth. They’re part of the problem, part of the corrupt system. They have their own agenda, and their agenda is not your agenda. But despite all their lies, misrepresentations, and false stories, they could not defeat us in the primaries, and they could not defeat us in the general election, and we will continue to expose them for what they are, and most importantly, we will continue to win, win, win. ”
(This is me, Steve). Why does Trump want to kill the free press in America? His goal is obvious, as it was in Hitler’s time. In this particular case, Trump’s Russia connection is a ticking time bomb. The revelations, probably followed by indictments, are coming; you can bet on it. When they do, he wants to be able to tell his supporters–those gullible people wearing their little “Make America Great Again” caps–that it’s all lies.
TOMORROW: Trump’s Der Stürmer: the Wall Street Journal’s exaltation of Scott Pruitt
To: Executive Council; Board of Directors; Air Force One Division; Commercial Airplane Division; Defense, Space & Security Division; Human Resources
From: Dennis Muilenburg, CEO
Subject: Air Force One 747-8
Date: Feb. 20, 2017
As you are aware, President Trump has expressed concerns over the proposed cost of the next Air Force One. The President suggested in a tweet that the $4 billion price tag was “out of control.”
I had the honor of a one-on-one meeting with the President last week, at which this topic was of central concern. As I explained to reporters in Trump Tower following the meeting, “We made some great progress on simplifying requirements for Air Force One, streamlining the process, streamlining certification.”
I would like to share with you some of the simplifications I and my team envision in this next generation of Air Force One.
- Eliminate up to four restrooms. The prior design had called for six restrooms. The new design calls for two: One for the President and his immediate family, and the other for everyone else.
- Shorten the airliner’s length. The early design called for the new 747-8 to be the longest and second-largest airliner ever built, 232 feet in length, 196 feet in wingspan, and 4,786 square feet. Our redesign calls for square footage to be reduced by roughly 50 percent. This will necessitate eliminating up to 60 passengers from the carrying capacity. President Trump suggested that the media seating area be removed and replaced by a snack bar.
- Interior cabinets and components all were originally to have been custom-built, using American craftsmen. However, in order to effect cost savings, all cabinets and components, including plumbing, refrigeration and heating systems, media centers, and all furnishings and fixtures, will be acquired off-the-shelf from Home Depot and Best Buy.
- The Conference Room will be eliminated, as the President suggested he will have no need of in-flight conferences. The space (450 square feet) instead will be re-designated as a fashion-storage/changing area for the First Lady and other members of the First Family.
- There will be no changes to the original designs of the following areas: the Presidential Stateroom, Presidential Office, Presidential Living Quarters and President’s Private Dining Room.
- Finally, the historic coloring of Air Force One—a white body with blue nose—will change to white and red, to reflect the President’s red “Make America Great Again” caps. Savings will be enhanced by purchasing paint at wholesale from Kelly-Moore and hiring painters through Craigs List. President Trump emphasized that the red color is not an allusion to Russia.
We feel these changes will not only save money, but make Air Force One more family-friendly for our new leaders. I look forward to your comments.
There’s a German term, kadaverische Gehorsamkeit, that means “corpse-like obedience.” It refers to a supposed personality tendency of Germans to be docile and unquestioning in the face of authority. The idea is illustrated by a story Stalin described, at the Teheran conference in 1943, that was revealed by Averell Harriman in a memoir.
“He [Stalin] told of visiting Leipzig in 1907, when some two hundred German workers failed to appear at an important rally because, Stalin said, there was no controller on the railway platform to punch their tickets on arrival.” Without properly punched tickets, the German workers “were too timid to leave the station.”
That is kadaverische Gehorsamkeit–corpse-like obedience. (Incidentally, Hannah Arendt, in her little book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” refers to Kadavergehorsam [a shortened way of spelling it] as characterizing Adolf Eichmann’s “carrying out orders that are clearly criminal” due to his concept of “duty.”)
Why would anyone stand by someone advocating “orders that are clearly criminal”? I asked myself that question yesterday when reading this article, “Backers stay true to Trump,” in the San Francisco Chronicle. It describes how—despite Trump’s historically low approval ratings and “repeated contradictions and falsehoods”–his “hard-core supporters’ faith appears to be unshakeable.” Indeed, the most recent Pew Research Center poll found that a whopping 84% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters approve of him. (By contrast, only 8% of Democrats/Lean Democratic voters share that approval.)
What are we to make of this “stand by your man” obstinacy by Republicans? Kadaverische Gehorsamkeit–corpse-like obedience.
One of the Trumpists interviewed for the Chronicle article showed how far these people are willing to rationalize Trump’s erratic behavior. The man, described as “the former president of the Sun City Conservative Club outside Las Vegas,” dismissed the reports about Flynn and the Russian connection; he just doesn’t care. Another pro-Trump guy, a county Republican chairman from Ohio, echoed the White House/Bannon line: All the chaos and false moves, the slapdowns by the Courts and the embarrassing litany of lies, “are [coming from] people inside the administration who are trying to undermine him.”
This brings us back to World War II, and another example of kadaverische Gehorsamkeit. Members of my generation no doubt remember that, well into the 1950s, there were reports of Japanese soldiers still hiding out on remote Pacific islands, who refused to believe (or didn’t know) that their Emperor had surrendered (on August 15, 1945) and were determined to fight the war out. These “remaining Japanese soldiers” (Zanryu nipponhei) “continued to fight the enemy forces, and later local police, for years after the war was over.” They, too, were kadaverische Gehorsamkeit—obedient to the point of obstinate refusal to accept reality.
Such people by clinical definition cannot have their minds changed, or, if they can, only under the most difficult circumstances of therapy. Will these Trumpian Republicans remain obedient corpses, even unto the end? We can only hope they’ll wake up. Meanwhile, we—the sane—will continue #TheResistance.
TRUMP’S LIE OF THE DAY: from his @RealDonaldTrump twitter feed: “The repeal and replacement of ObamaCare is moving fast!” #Lie. It’s hopelessly stalled. Even Congressional Republicans have no idea what to “replace” it with, if and when they repeal it.
Thursdays’s big lie, at Trump’s insane press conference, was, “The leaks are real, the news is fake.”
I can practically overhear those water cooler conversations in Red States. “’Course, it’s a shame that guy, what’s-his-name, Flynn, was so dishonest, and so disloyal to the President,” says Mrs. Bingham, who organized “Farm Wives For Trump” in Olawatchie County. “He shouldna done what he done, whatever that was, I guess. But those dishonest medias, they lie all the time, so the news about the leaks is fake, fake, fake.”
Her co-worker, Mr. Needham, who contributed $50 to the Trump campaign in ten small donations, shakes his head. “Well, if that’s what President Trump says, I guess it’s true. ‘Cause he don’t lie.”
Never mind how the leaks can be real, but the reporting about the leaks is fake. Never mind that the content of the leaks is so damaging to Trump and his people. Trump voters don’t bother themselves with such fine intellectual distinctions. “If he says it’s true, then I guess it is.”
But there was so much more news yesterday than merely Trump’s lie of the day. Flynngate! It took the Wall Street Journal a couple days to wrap their heads around this biggest scandal yet to hit their man. You could almost imagine the meetings of senior management. “How’re we gonna report on this?” “Mr. Murdoch says to soft-pedal it.” So they give the beta response to good old Henninger, as conscienceless a columnist as I’ve ever read. Here’s his defense of his President. (1) Everybody does stuff like Flynn did, so fageddaboudit. (2) Besides, things may be chaotic, but it’s all part of draining the swamp. (3) And anyhow, comparisons with Nixon and Watergate are incorrect, because “Nixon didn’t resign because of anything proven…but only after he…lost the support of his own party in Congress.”
Read that again. Yes, you got it right: “Nixon didn’t resign because of anything proven.” Well, if Ford had let him be tried, it would have been proven–but there was a deal…Anyhow, tto this outfit—the Trumpsters, Wall Street Journal hacks like Henninger—since there’s no such thing as a “real fact,” then it follows that nothing can be “proven.” Was it “proven” that Nixon ordered the break-in and then lied about it for two years? Well, yes, despite the avoidance of a trial. The smoking gun tapes prove it; History has reached that conclusion. If you believe in little things like truth, facts and evidence, then it’s been conclusively proven that Nixon broke many laws.
But the Trump crowd operates on the assumption that “History” doesn’t matter. “Conclusions” are soft, “truth” relative, reality something plastic to be shaped by the best performer. “Evidence” can be manufactured. One man’s “fact” is another’s “fake news.” Obfuscate enough–and the bigger the lie, the better–and the voter will become hopelessly confused, as Mrs. Bingham and Mr. Needham are, around that Red State water cooler.
Along other lines, my fellow Americans, these boycotts of Trump-friendly corporations are taking their toll. We all know about Uber and how Kalanick quit from that little business roundtable because his Millennials were #DeletingUber by the hundreds of thousands. But Uber’s hardly alone. Under Armour’s CEO just announced he’ll fight Trump’s Muslim ban, but he said so only after a slew of athletes, including Steph Curry, criticized him for earlier backing the President.
That’s a form of boycott. There are also widespread consumer boycotts in progress against Trump’s own businesses (including Ivanka’s barely-alive clothing brand). We all know how Nordstrom’s dropped her line after social media took her on. Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Amazon are on the target list because they sell Trump stuff; See’s Candy and Trident gum are, too, because they advertise on “Celebrity Apprentice.” LendingTree and New Balance sneakers find themselves boycotted, too, because their CEOs raised money for the Trump campaign.
This is good stuff, citizens. We may have lost the last election, but we can vote with our wallets. The woman behind many of these boycotts, Shannon Coulter, really deserves kudos for doing this. Check out her website, Grab Your Wallet (the name is a pun on Trump’s “grab their pussies”). It lists all the companies Shannon could find that support Trump and his nepotistic family. I don’t expect you to avoid all of them. I’ll still shop at Amazon and Bed Bath & Beyond, and I’ll still watch Ultimate Fighting even though their president is a rightwinger who strongly endorsed Trump. But I’ll try to limit my involvement with them. This boycott movement is all part of #TheResistance, so I hope you’ll look at Shannon’s list and figure out which companies you can boycott.
Have a great weekend!
It’s been one of the great experiences and privileges of my life to be part of #TheResistance. That’s the generally accepted Twitter hashtag for this growing movement of Americans against the reactionary, imbecilic and dangerous regime of Donald Trump.
I don’t know if there’s been anything like it since the Sixties and the anti-war movement. I was on the fringe of that resistance. Not a big part of it, but sympathetic. Back then, the issue was, of course, Vietnam. I had watched the war build up, from the early days in ’63-’64 to LBJ’s massive increase in troops, which led to the historic street demonstrations that continued long after Nixon swept into office. I was against the war, more or less—couldn’t see any good reason for it, and I certainly didn’t buy into the (now completely discredited) domino theory. But I wasn’t a huge anti-war person, because by ’65 or so, I’d become part of what would later be called the hippie movement, and our slogan—“turn on, tune in, drop out”—precluded major involvement in political causes in favor of a more introspective lifestyle. Still, I went on a couple protests against the war, including the 1966 one led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that marched from Central Park to the United Nations.
The anti-war movement, when you think about it, didn’t really amount to much, beyond lots of headlines. The war didn’t end in ‘67’, or ’68, or ’69, or ’70, or ’71, or ’72, or ’73, or ’74. It took until April, 1975, for it to be over. Nixon had famously declared, six years earlier (Dec. 1969), that the war would shortly be over due to his “secret plan” to end it.
Nixon had no such secret plan. He simply lied. But still, enough Americans believed he would end the war that they elected him over Hubert Humphrey.
Nixon was the most infamous liar of his day, and the most mendacious U.S. President ever, until—well, you know. Now we have another person who was elected President by telling lies that gullible people believed. His latest was yesterday, when he promised he would achieve “a great peace deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.
He won’t. He’ll do his best to kill a two-state solution, which means that the right wing Netanyahu regime will continue, and the two sides will be further apart than ever—and the dangers to Americans will exponentially increase. But let’s give Trump the benefit of a doubt: we won’t be able to say he lied about “a great peace deal” for a couple more years. Then we can say it—and when that happens, assuming he’s still alive, he’ll find someone—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the New York Times, ISIS, Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Democrats, the crooked media, Planned Parenthood—to blame.
Which brings me back to #TheResistance. It may be (and I hope it is) that, someday, our children and grandchildren will ask us what we did to oppose the imposition of fascism upon our democracy. For me, it began on August 22, 2016, the day I announced my retirement and told readers that this blog would transition from one about wine “to demolish[ing] the Republican Party, which deserves it.”
A week later (Sept. 1), I mentioned Trump for the first time, in a piece I headlined “Dr. Donald’s Trumpsparilla: Selling quack nostrums to gullible Americans.” I can’t say I saw through Trump’s lies earlier than anyone else; I think all Democrats did. He’s still at it, lying left and right, and his supporters are still buying it—so far—because (near as I can tell), although they know he’s an asshole, he’s their asshole.
So I’ve been a member of #TheResistance for going on six months. We’re winning: the Puzder fiasco is an early sign of our gathering strength. If anything, I’m more fired up than ever, because the dangers posed by this #IllegitimatePresident (another good hashtag) are more apparent every day. As many of you know, I don’t have kids—hence, no grandkids—but if I did, someday I would have loved to sit down with them and tell them about these glorious days, when Americans of every stripe united to end the tyranny of Donald Trump. How will this resistance end? Remember, Nixon—in his hubris and anger—managed to get himself impeached and had to quit. Even his fellow Republicans eventually decided that he was too much. That’s what I think is going to happen to Trump. Another hashtag: #GoneBySummer. If you’re not part of #TheResistance, doing whatever you can to fight, “I hope someday you’ll join us.”