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Trump Jumps the Shark

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Jump the shark: referring to a television series or movie that reaches a point at which far-fetched events are included merely for the sake of novelty, indicative of a decline in quality.

Back in 1977, the popular T.V. series, Happy Days, unwittingly added a neologism to the American vernacular when its writers had the character Fonzie (Henry Winkler) jump over a shark while on water skis. Audiences groaned; “the gimmick,” explains Wikipedia, “strayed absurdly outside the original storyline of the sitcom.” Jumping the shark has since come to indicate that a show’s writers, desperate to maintain popularity, “have exhausted their focus, that the show has strayed irretrievably from an older and better formula, or that the series as a whole is declining in quality.”

We all know that the Trump presidency has been a reality T.V. show played out in real time. Trump, who knows a thing or two about television programming from his days as host of the reality show The Apprentice, figured out that what Americans want from a president is, not leadership or inspiration or competence, but entertainment. And he understands the main premise of an entertaining plot: keep raising the stakes. That’s what makes viewers come back for more.

This explains everything about Trump’s political rise, from the birtherism he began to espouse in 2011 to that dramatic ride down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2016 to the thousands and thousands of lies he’s told since then, from the size of his inaugural crowd to the accusations of fraud in the recent campaign. As political theater, it worked brilliantly. It not only appealed to the madness of his fans, it made for must-see T.V. Love Trump or hate him, we all were glued to our radios and televisions and computer screens, driven by the central driving motivation of entertainment: a desire to know what happens next.

As a reality series, then, the Trump presidency has been a huge success. But every successful T.V. series (M.A.S.H., Cheers, Dallas, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Homeland) must end. The question, for its producers and writers, is when to pull the plug. It can be done gracefully, as in the series I just cited; or they can try to deny the inevitable and keep the thing on life support longer than is creatively warranted. They can, in other words, jump the shark.

The Trump T.V. series ended, or should have ended, with the results of the presidential election. Trump lost; Biden won; in a rational, sane world, that would have been that. The writers and producers would have emptied their desk drawers, taken their coffee mugs and gone home, to work on another script for another series. But the star of the Trump T.V. series didn’t want the show to end quite that abruptly. Donald Trump wished it to continue, for many more years. No one connected to him had the guts to tell him that it was over, that the series was as dead as the Milton Berle Show and nothing could resuscitate it. So Donald Trump, who as I said knows a thing or two about programming, decided to write a few more episodes that were so dramatic, so unlikely, so controversial, that—he hoped—viewers would find it impossible to change the channel. Donald Trump, in other words, jumped the shark.

What he scripted this past week was absurd, pointless drama: waiting until the last minute to sign the COVID relief bill, but with the proviso that it be amended to include $2,000 checks to almost every American. He also vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, daring the Congress to give him his first override. As I write, these issues remain very much alive, dominating Washington at a time when the Congress has plenty of other things to worry about.

Why these stunts of Trump are “jumping the shark” is obvious. The Trump T.V. series has been “declining in quality” for some time, and the recent election gave it the coup de grâce. At some point, Trump, the scriptwriter, ran out of steam for new plot devices, and began resorting to the same twists over and over again. His tweeting, so unique and radical at first, became merely predictable. His fulminations about the election—never believable to begin with—became hysterical and neurotic. His anger and resentment, always prominent in his personality, turned ugly and tiresome. Even Republicans grew weary of the series. What Trump should have done was collect his Emmies and retire to Mar-a-Lago. Instead, his narcissism and insecurity forced him to write these last few scripts, which have tarnished his presidency beyond the degree to which it was already tarnished, which was pretty badly.

Technically, the Donald Trump T.V. show will continue for another three weeks. But it’s already Dead Man Walking. Tedious and tendentious, it’s turned into the media equivalent of heroin addiction: users no longer even get high on it, they just need it to continue to exist. The Joe Biden Show begins at noon on January 20, 2021; the Trump show will be shown only as reruns on small local channels. Trump’s final jumping-the-shark episodes will be just another of the horrible, sickening things about 2020 we’ll be glad to be rid of.


We need good newspapers now more than ever

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It didn’t come as a surprise to me that “digital revenue exceeded print for the first time ever” at the New York Times during the second quarter of 2020. During those three months, the Times added 669,000 new online subscribers, compared with only 493,000 new subscribers to the paper’s print edition. (By the way, those are pretty impressive numbers for the newspaper Trump calls “the failing New York Times.”)

For many years—at least since I started blogging, in 2008—pundits have been predicting that print is dead, long live digital. And it may finally be starting to come true. If so, count me among the recalcitrants. I’ve always subscribed to real paper newspapers, and I still do. I’ve taken the San Francisco Chronicle for at least thirty years. I like the experience of going to my doorstep first thing in the morning and (hopefully, but not always) seeing my paper there, usually wrapped in yellow plastic. I like sliding the paper out of its wrapper and looking at the headlines on the front page. It would be easy enough for me to get the digital edition only (and I’d save a few hundred dollars a year), but the experience wouldn’t be the same.

I have to admit to an additional motive for subscribing to print. It is more expensive, but I appreciate that my money is going to support good reporting. I see it as a kind of tax: if I value solid, honest, independent journalism, I have to put my money where my mouth is. Great reporters don’t work for nothing.

(After all this, you might think that I subscribe to the New York Times. In fact, I don’t. I would, but the paper wouldn’t be delivered to my home early enough, California time, for me to read it over my breakfast and coffee, which is my preferred time. I feel a little guilty about that, but my habits are pretty fixed at this point in my life. So the San Francisco Chronicle is my home paper; it’s reliably there by 6 a.m., and I’m an early riser. The Chronicle is not half the paper as the Times. I wish it were. But it does a decent enough job of reporting on local issues.)

This ties into the role of journalism as a whole. Most politicians hate reporters—not personally, but the way the Fourth Estate tends to ask embarrassing questions. Republicans, Democrats, they all resent having to be answerable to pesky, inquisitive newsmen and women. Which is exactly why we need news reporters. Can you imagine the sinister things Trump and the crowd around him would get away with, if there was nobody there to shine a light on the darkness? The danger to journalism, it seems to me, isn’t that print is threatened by digital, but that the field is being taken over by giant news conglomerates that have their own pecuniary interests. I like reporters who dig for the truth and then tell it, regardless of the political or financial interests of management. Good newspapers manage to keep a firewall, not only between the editorial side and the business side of the company, but between the two sides of editorial that often are at odds with each other: the “front page” news reporting and the “op-ed” pages. The Wall Street Journal is, or has been, a good example: their op-ed pages are truly deplorable, with rightwing hacks shoveling up great steaming piles of garbage. Yet at the same time, the Journal’s frontline reporters are (or used to be) free to write up the facts as they find them—facts that are often damaging to the Trump family.

I find it troubling, to say the least, that so many people have tuned out the news in their lives. Too many of them seem to believe that all reporting is bullshit. They think they can live their lives without getting tangled up in the affairs of the country. Such thinking is wrong, stupid and dangerous. You may think you’re not involved in or affected by the political clashes that occur in Washington, D.C., but you are: what the Congress decides, what the President signs, affects every one of us, from the safety of airplanes to the development of new drugs, from a woman’s right to choose to a gay couple’s right to marry and adopt children, from whether we go to war or don’t. The cleanliness of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat is dependent on the Congress giving adequate funding to regulatory agencies. People would be well advised to follow politics more, not less.

And that’s why we need newspapers. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”


Wall Street Journal reporters are starting to rebel

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It’s encouraging that the Wall Street Journal’s own writers are demanding that the Murdoch family make “a clearer differentiation” between the newspaper’s news and opinion divisions, since the Journal’s embarrassing support of Trump has cast a shadow over the professional integrity of the reporters who work there.

It’s very sad; the Wall Street Journal has, or had, a well-deserved reputation for outstanding journalism. But, when the Murdochs made the decision to support Trump unconditionally, they flushed that reputation down the toilet. The extreme rightwing narrative peddled by the worst of the Journal’s op-ed columnists, such as Daniel Henninger and Kimberly Strassel, now have resulted in internal blowback unprecedented in the paper’s 131-year history.

More than 280 employees of the Journal sent a letter to management stating something I’ve been saying for years: the editorial page’s “lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.” You can say that again. What is a newspaper, after all, if it has lost its readers’ trust? It becomes nothing but a press release for the politician it supports. Why would anyone be interested in paying for a press release for Trump? We can get that for free on Twitter.

There traditionally has been a sharp dividing line between editorial page coverage, or “op-eds,” and news coverage. The former represents the opinion of the writer. The latter is, or should be, based on an objective reporting of facts. Opinionating has no place in news coverage, while op-ed pieces should at least try to stay faithful to facts. Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal has wandered far afield on both fronts: their news coverage increasingly looks like puff pieces for Trump and hit pieces on Democrats, while the op-ed columns have become completely unhinged from factual reality.

The most egregious example of this—and, in fact, the last straw for the 280 Journal employees—was a Mike Pence opinion piece that denied the existence of a “second wave” of coronavirus in the U.S., and accused “the media” of contriving it. “Such panic is overblown,” the head of the administration’s coronavirus task force declared. It was such an obvious lie, so patently fake a claim, that no reputable newspaper ever should have allowed it to be printed; and yet the Wall Street Journal, which means the Murdoch family, did. It’s as if the paper allowed a flat-earther to declare that claims that the Earth is round are “fake news.”

We need news reporting now more than ever: real reporting, not made-up fantasies designed to protect a rogue, incompetent regime in power. This is why such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post are so important to the survival of our democracy; that is also why Trump hates those two papers more than any others. It’s because they shine a light on his lies and the lies of his accomplices. Can you imagine if the Times and the Post should cease to exist? Who would tell us what’s really happening in the halls of power in Washington? Trump would have access to his big podium, and be able to spew all the fake news he wants, unchallenged by anyone else. It would be like Big Brother in 1984, when all the information available to the citizens was via the telescreens, which were run by the government. Information was tightly controlled and “massaged”; inconvenient facts were “vaporized”; history was rewritten, so that only the official version of reality was left.

That’s what Trump wants. It’s what Mike Pence and Bill Barr and the rest of the Republicans want. It’s what the Murdoch family wants: they’ve made a lot of money off Trump, and they have no intention of changing that. So they’ve sent word out to the entire staff of the Wall Street Journal: we will continue to allow Republican op-ed columnists to lie through their teeth on the editorial page, and we will continue to strongly “encourage” our reporters to ignore or minimize facts favorable to Democrats and puff up things favorable to Republicans. The Murdochs, however, didn’t reckon with one minor detail: the Wall Street Journal’s own reporters, who have had it up to here.


Republicans unleash a flood of fake news on social media

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Research from the University of Oxford exposes how the far right is swamping our in-boxes with fake publications, in the approach to the 2020 elections.

“Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation” reveals how the far right uses “cybertroops” to manipulate public opinion on social media “by gaining control of the narrative in the information age.” Running “fake accounts to mask their identity and interests,” they attempt “to appear as grassroots activism” by “mimicking human users.” Their methodology is to “create substantive content to spread political messages.” Often, though, the political content is hidden: cybertroops “weave propaganda seamlessly into what appears to be the non‐political musings of an everyday person.” For example, the Oxford study cites “a fortune‐telling blog that provided insight into relationships, weight loss [and] Feng Shui” but that was, instead, a front for subtle, insidious far-right messaging.

With these facts in mind, meet “Mark Fike.” He purports to be the editor of an online publication, Great American Wildlife, that on its surface looks like a guide to fishing, camping and hunting. Sounds innocent enough, but take a closer look. “Mark Fike” mass emails Great American Wildlife to people (including me) from purchased mailing lists. There is substantial evidence that “Mark Fike” is not a real human being, but is a “bot,” and that “Great American Wildlife” is little more than a rightwing attempt to manipulate public opinion to be more favorable to Trump. Fike’s latest email (I get one a day) begins with an advertisement called “Here are Trump’s two plans for re-opening the economy.” The one before that has an ad called “Nancy Pelosi’s Plan to Crush the Stock Market (Democrats Didn’t See THIS Coming”). “Fike” also pushes a favorite theme of the white supremacist/militia/gun nut crowd: “living off the land and firearms. I get a lot of questions thrown to me by acquaintances” concerning these topics, he says, without citing specifics. This brings to mind Trump’s method of introducing controversial topics by alleging, “A lot of people are saying” when, in fact, nobody is saying, except for a handful of Fox “News” commentators and deranged talk show hosts like Alex Jones.

Great American Wildlife’s mailing address, by the way, is Rising Media News Network, 754 Warrenton Road, Fredricksburg VA. That’s also the address on another email I get everyday, from something called Black Eye Politics, whose “editor” is one “Jim Sanders.” Black Eye is far more overtly rightwing that Great American Wildlife: recent articles include “America Could Face a Great Depression: What Limbaugh Revealed Will Make You Red With Rage “ and “Tucker Carlson Raised a Red Flag About Joe Biden That Left Democrats in Tears.” Black Eye is particularly obsessed with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

A third online “periodical” is Deep State Journal, (editor: “John Garrett”), which similarly shares the same Virginia address on Warrenton Road as Great American Wildlife and Black Eye Politics. “Deep State” strikes a middle tone between the fake innocence of Great American Wildlife and the blatant rightwing paranoia of Black Eye. A recent article compared Democrats to Roger “Verbal” Kint (Keyser Soze), Kevin Spacey’s insane character in The Usual Suspects: “the devil [as] master of misdirection” practicing “sorcery.” Deep State targets Barack Obama consistently, playing to rightwing fears that Obama was actually an agent of a foreign power.

There are dozens of these phony online newsletters; they’re sent every day to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans, many of whom will read them and think—as the Oxford study says—that they’re “grassroots activism” created by “human users” when in reality they’re bots. Trying to contact these organizations is pointless, since they don’t actually exist. It’s impossible to unsubscribe to them: you just have to let your in-box be swamped with them.

The U.S. Government claims to be aware of the potential for mischief created by these cybertroops; a recent article in The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists cites an effort by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (a think tank within the Department of Defense), to create “an AI [artificial intelligence] early warning system to monitor [such] manipulated content…”. The article’s authors warn that “Our ability to connect online has far outpaced our capacity to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information.” The problem, they explain, is that “Intelligence agencies, political parties, and rogue actors are all taking advantage of this complex and exploitable web of interconnections and using social media to disseminate altered content, fake news, and propaganda to interfere in elections and even to incite direct violence.” Keep in mind, elements among the neo-nazi, white supremacist far right would love for civil unrest to strike America, since they feel that they would be the beneficiaries of such unrest.

DARPA claims it wants to “warn human observers such as journalists or election monitors about potential threats in real time” posed by cybertroops and their fake online publications. It may well be that some scientists at lower levels within DARPA have such concerns, but they are working for an administration that has shown no inclination to muzzle, much less expose, fake content, and one moreover that punishes whistleblowers whom Trump calls the “deep state enemies” of America.

Mark Fike…Jim Sanders…John Garrett…if you believe these are real human beings, then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. The Republican-Trump re-election campaign, possibly in collusion with Russian intelligence, is off to a swift start, spreading disinformation and smearing Democrats. Keep a close eye your own in-box.


OMGNAs: The wine writer’s nemesis

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When I was a working wine writer, it seemed like every year the magazine wanted the same story right around this time:

WHAT WINE TO DRINK AT THANKSGIVING

I dutifully handed in my assignments, but I never felt particularly proud of them. These kinds of stories are known in the trade as OMGNAs, as in “Oh, my God, not again.” It’s nearly impossible to do a good job writing them; writers loathe them, because they’re the same, year after year after year. And yet, if you complained, the editors and publishers always argued, “Well, our readers like them, so you have to write them.”

What can you say about Thanksgiving wine? Elin McCoy did about as credible a job as possible yesterday at Bloomberg News, when she gave the standard (and only plausible) advice: Put out a bunch of highly versatile wines—bubbly, red, white, and rosé…so people can chose for themselves.” I mean, what else is there to say? Nothing. That’s the truth in a nutshell. But a column requires more than 18 words, so you have to take that simple message and spin it out to 600 words or 900 words or whatever your word count is.

What are some other OMGNAs? Well, to some extent the inevitable varietal roundups are. Here in California there are 5 or 6 major varieties that wine magazines have to write about. Zinfandel is one. Every three or four years, they have to do their Zinfandel writeup, and the slant is always something along the lines of “What’s new in Zinfandel?” After all, that’s what the media writes about, right? The news! Problem is, there’s not always something newsy about Zinfandel. You can’t just write an article saying, “If you want to know what’s up with Zinfandel, read the article I wrote four years ago, because nothing has changed since then.” If you handed that in, your publisher would probably fire you, so you have to make it sound like Zinfandel has gone through breathtakingly awesome changes for the better since the last time you wrote about it, which is why such articles are usually headlined something like “Zinfandel’s New Face.” New face, my butt: Zinfandel’s face is the same as it’s been for a long time. (By the way, that’s not a slam. I love a good Zin!)

One of the OMGNAs I dreaded the most came with the arrival of warm weather. That was when we always had to come up with our “Summer Whites” articles. The meme was always the same: “Now that the long cold winter months are over, it’s time to break out the whites to drink by the pool and the beach.” Every wine magazine in the universe has to write that article, which appears in the May or June issue. The article never, ever varies: It’s always about cold, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, whatever. You can recycle the same article endlessly, changing a producer here and there, substituting one recipe for another, maybe interviewing a famous hostess for her suggestions on how to throw the perfect backyard party. Writers hate that kind of thing. Well, I did. It’s not really wine writing, it’s entertainment writing. The two genres are totally different.

So what kinds of articles did I actually like? Terroir articles were the best. When I wrote about Cooombsville, I was in my element. Same with my article on Pritchard Hill, which was tremendously enjoyable. I got to dive down deep into issues of soil and climate. I met the major players and picked their brains, learning about their histories and their dreams. I tasted and analyzed the wines. The goal was for me to understand this area of Napa Valley, and so to be able to explain it to readers. That took real investigative reporting. It required the skills I had trained myself in for many years. There was no template: I had to come to my own conclusions and then frame them professionally and, I hoped, unassailably.

Well, I do realize that not every article a fulltime wine writer writes can be that fulfilling. I have some understanding of the way a wine magazine works, and how the bills are paid, and those Thanksgiving and Summer Whites articles are part and parcel of the process. So, I always told myself whenever I had to write them, just grin and bear it. That’s what pays your salary, Steve-o.


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