Trump brings the crisis in journalism to a flashpoint

Summary: Campaign 2016 and the advent of Trump have brought the crisis in journalism to the front pages. Fake news, conflicts with the president, calls for advocacy journalism, loss of the public’s trust — together these are forcing journalists to reconsider the craft and their business. Failure to find solutions will mean a new information regime for America.

Lois Lane



  1. Watch journalists burn the news media.
  2. Do we trust journalists or Trump?
  3. Do we trust journalists?
  4. Jay Rosen explains the news.
  5. For More Information.

See journalist in Lois Lane in 1972…

(1) Watch journalists burn the news media to the ground

Their business relies on the public’s trust. I feel sad watching them burn their business to the ground. Their long decay has accelerated since the election of Trump.

16 Fake News Stories Reporters Have Run Since Trump Won” by Daniel Payne at The Federalist “Journalists, media types, reporters, you have two choices: you can fix these problems, or you can watch your profession go down in flames.” Payne provides detailed documentation of sixteen fake new stories. None were well-researched. All received lavish attention from mainstream journalist. All proved false, with the retractions lightly reported.

A WaPo op-ed: “The media botched this Trump story last week — and that’s bad for everyone” by Jackson Diehl (Deputy Editor).

“The Trump administration has launched a raft of ill-considered, reckless and wrongheaded foreign policy initiatives in its first two weeks… One thing Trump has decidedly not done, however, is downgrade the participation of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the deliberations of the National Security Council. Opening…

“You may have heard and read otherwise, repeatedly. Therein lies an illustration of how communication between the executive and mainstream media, and with it coverage of the Trump administration, has already come unhinged. …Media organizations look less credible on the real Trump transgressions when they, inadvertently or otherwise, report the routine as scandalous. “

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Here are the facts so far about the Trump-Russia file.

Summary: The Trump-Russia story creates a situation without parallel since Watergate (Iran-Contra was a sideshow). The news gives us the usual confusing mish-mash. Here is an outline of the story, with links and pointers to the best analysis I have seen so far. Read, decide for yourself —  and watch this story evolve. See the follow-up: Deciphering the scandalous rumors about Trump in Russia.

Donald Trump covering his ears


  1. The story so far.
  2. Follow-ups to the story.
  3. Analysis of the story.
  4. Updates.
  5. Conclusions.
  6. For More Information.

(1) The story so far.

Christopher Steele, former SIS (aka MI6) agent and director of London-based Orbis Intelligence Ltd., gathered a file of dirt about Trump — first paid for by Republicans opposing Trump, then by Democrats opposing Trump (details here; the clients carefully concealed themselves). Steele gave the file to the FBI in August 2016 (others did so later). With no visible results from the FBI, Steele gave it to others (e.g., David Corn, who wrote an October article in Mother Jones). They passed it to others (e.g., to Senator McCain, who gave it to the FBI). See The Guardian for details.

At some point US intelligence agencies took it seriously, in combination with information from other sources. The file consists of memos dated from 20 June to 13 December 2016. The memos have misspellings and minor errors. For example, it says that Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, visited the Czech Republic. That was a different Michael Cohen.

On January 10 CNN broke the story, saying that Trump and Obama were briefed about their concerns about Trump’s ties to Russia (including allegations in the file) by four senior intelligence directors: James Clapper (DNI), James Comey (FBI), John Brennan (CIA), and Mike Rogers (NSA).  NBC said Trump was not briefed, and might not have received the two page summary. Some members of Congress also received the summary. Later that day Buzzfeed published a story about it, including the full 35-page file.

Update: Wednesday night James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, released a statement that punctured the fevered speculation by Democrats about the Trump-Russia file. The key lines…

“The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions.”

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Fact-checking: useful, until it becomes politically biased trivial pursuit

Summary: Monday’s debate shows the limit of fact-checking, even in those rare cases where it’s politically neutral. While useful in small doses, it boosts our obsession with the trivial aspects of the race and obscures the great issues at stake. Also, it’s seldom done with a neutral viewpoint — becoming glib defenses of the established narrative.

Truth, not Pravda, Will Make You Free


Fact-checking is useful but has become part of our dysfunctional political campaigns. They turn the debates into trivial pursuit, with fact-checking a fun, easy, cheap role for journalists. The product is entertaining and superficial — the hallmarks of modern election coverage. The deeper issues are lost in the chatter about sound bites and personalities. No surprise that only 55% of Americans vote for president. For example see Bloomberg’s Fact Checker’s summary of the debate

“The candidates spent a good deal of time on stop-and-frisk, racial issues, Obama birther matter, ISIS and nuclear weapons. Trump appeared to be rambling on a number of questions, especially on foreign policy. Clinton made points on the tax returns, with Trump not ending questions about whether he failed to pay any federal income taxes — and not offering a clear reason as to why he’s not releasing his tax returns.”

Where are the discussions of resurgent populism and progressivism, of long-suppressed issues such as mass immigration and globalization, and of vital questions such how to handle our failed wars since 9/11?

The major media’s fact checkers (see Bloomberg and the AP) caught some of Clinton’s whoppers (her flip-flopping about the Trans-Pacific Partnership), missed some (lying about Iran’s nuclear program; see tomorrow’s post), and displayed astonishing bias about others. Let’s look as examples of the bias.

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Gallup sounds the death knell for the news media. Disruption coming!

Summary: The latest Gallup poll about the public’s trust in the media has bad news about this key industry — and for America, which relies on this to make the Republic run. It’s another industry ripe for disruption. We can only guess if for the better or worse.

Watch an industry die: the long decline of American’s trust in news media.

Gallup's Trust in media survey - September 2016

Here is Gallup’s dirge for the news media: “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low“. Journalists write as if they are selling information and insights. But they are selling trust, and a only a shrinking minority of the public trusts their product.

The foundation of their industry erodes away a little more every year. Combine this with the massive excess in news services and journalists and the crushing of the middle class (subscriptions are among the first expenses to cut) — the result is (to use the current jargon) “disruption”. It will not be pretty.

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Journalists suffer from the crisis crisis, warping America’s vision

Summary: The news is all about fear. Each day journalists flood the media with exaggerated stories of imminent doom without useful context. This slant to the news warps our perception of the world, with ill effects on America’s public policy. It’s the crisis crisis, as described by Peter Moore in a prescient article from Playboy in 1987 (he thought it was bad then; it’s many times worse today).

Horribleness: America's true enduring bull market
The bull market in horribleness.


Excerpt from “The Crisis Crisis”

By Peter Moore
From Playboy, March 1987


It’s bad news Biblical style: Plagues of swarming journalists are swallowing — and selling — every doomsday scenario in sight. Picture a crowded bar. Three television sets hang from the ceiling, tuned in to the network feed. This is a high tech joint, so there are competing amusements, as well: MTV: on wall-sized monitors, dueling jukeboxes, video games with synthetic voices. On top of this racket, there’s the festive roar of conversation.

That is, until the news comes on. Talk stammers to a halt and eyes are cast upward; they dart from screen to screen. The anchor men begin to talk loudly, and they’re talking crisis: drugs, vanishing rain forests, terrorism, Armageddon. They’re inflating stories to ten times their natural size, decrying the end of the world. Their graphics are flashier than video games, their footage better than MTV, their high-tension talk scarier than s-f.

In the face of this onslaught, the patrons can’t concentrate; they can’t even think. Aghast, afraid, they gulp their drinks as the hysteria level rises.


When they’ve got a crisis to hawk, news magazines love to start stories in italics. In that type face, they can get away with anything: apocalyptic fiction that would otherwise be out of place in straight journalism, even overextended metaphors for American society like the one in the paragraphs above. Italic type can also clear the way for a single anecdote to stand in for the latest trend that’s ravaging society, and it lays the groundwork for paragraphs that begin, “The sad story of Bob J. is all too familiar in America today. He represents an insidious epidemic that is sweeping. …”

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The long slow crash of journalism. How will it affect us?

Summary: The news business will radically change during the next generation, and few seem to see the core problems of overcapacity (both too many companies and too many journalists) and the coming wave of automation. This post takes a brief look at both.

“Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is.
— Hegel (1770 – 1831).


The news business is fine!

Ezra Klein, deacon of established opinion, asks “Is the media becoming a wire service?” They wish that were so. Wire services are still a business. Journalism today repeats one of the common stories of our day: a rich industry faces new competition, but prefers to listen to the band play while its ship sinks.

The obvious fact is that there are too many journalists and news corporations given their market (i.e., advertisers and paid subscribers). For most of its history their business consisted of protected markets — by industry and geographic area — each shielded from serious outside competition.  Technology has vaporized those walls.

Today few care (except the old folks) what the local paper says except about local news (which they will not pay for, and whose ever-fewer local advertisers can support only in a bare bones fashion). Reporters at local news agencies can occasionally break stories, getting their 15 minutes of fame. But that’s not a living.

Meanwhile stockbrokers read the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, liberals read The Guardian, conservatives read Breitbart and watch the pretty journalists on Fox, professionals read the New York Times, nerds read the splendid analytical work of Der Spiegel when it shows up on their Facebook page, and everybody reads hot stories when broken by the British tabloids (they break an amazingly high fraction of hot American stories).

These giants and the other news giants seem likely to grow, absorbing the audiences of the thousands of other news providers.

The consolidation process works slowly. The Boston Globe had its first issue in 1872 and became one of the nation’s top ten papers. In 1993 the New York Times bought its parent corp. for $1.1 billion (with the Globe its major asset). In 2013 John W. Henry bought it as a hobby and status symbol.  The Washington Post was the core holding of the Graham family, one of the social lions of Washington DC. In 2013 Jeff Bezos bought it for $250 million (i.e., small change to him), probably to boost his status and political influence.

Most news companies will not find angel investors, only new owners that accept growth or austerity. For most the eventual choices are consolidation or slow death.

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Politifact tells us about American politics and science. We should listen.

Summary: This vignette illustrates important aspects of the climate change debate, and why it has failed to gain sufficient support from Americans to pass large-scale public policy measures. For two decades journalists and scientists have cooperated to produce political propaganda, exaggerating and misrepresenting the work of the IPCC. Their failure should inspire us, showing a resistance to manipulation greater than many people expected (it surprises me).

Orwell: truth as revolutionary act
Attributed to George Orwell. He would have agreed.

My post, which started this kerfuffle

In July I published The 97% consensus of climate scientists is only 47%, which showed the hidden results of an excellent survey of scientists’ agreement with the IPPC’s attribution statements about the role of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in global warming. It was high, but lower than usually described — and below the standard for significance. The question has important implications; Obama’s sweeping Clean Power Plan rests on this finding (details here).

it attracted some attention on skeptics’ websites, and pushback from climate activists (both laypeople and scientists). Then GOP presidential candidate Rich Santorum cited this information, and the activists began their usual smear campaign. The facts are quite simple, for those who want to know.

The article at Politifact

Politifact started the cover-up with “Santorum cites flawed climate change figure, and misquotes it” by Linda Qui. She asked me for information. I gave her several thousand words (which I’ll publish next week). She didn’t find anything useful for smearing me, so she ignored it.

Below are the relevant parts of her hit job. My responses follow each quote. Qui tells me she consulted Verheggen and “6 other climate scientists/people who study the consensus issue” “and they all agreed with the survey author”. As you will see below, all that work produced only the weakest of rebuttals. But we can learn much from their attempt.

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