Sharing the Blame

I sent a conservative friend the link to an October 25 New York Times article about Donald Trump and the Hunter Biden story. Since the Wall Street Journal is one of the few “MSM” (mainstream media) publications conservatives trust, and since the sources at the Journal are quoted by name, I thought she might find the sequence of events detailed in the article interesting. The gist of the Times story is that the Journal was investigating the story when Rudy Giuliani, evidently impatient with the idea that a news outlet should actually verify accusations before printing them, peddled the story to Breitbart and the New York Post, which was less fastidious in its publication of them than the Journal was. According to the Times, this led the Journal to publish a shorter article on October 24, in which it stated that it could not verify any link to Joe Biden. The Journal article does, indeed, say in that it found no role for Joe Biden when it investigated.

My friend said that she didn’t pay much attention to the Times because she thought it spread “disinformation.” This is, of course, a familiar mantra on Fox News and by right-wing commentators, who have “cleverly” dubbed it the “New York Slimes.” How did this distrust of news organizations occur? As with everything, it occurred because there was some truth in the charges. Many years ago, when I taught persuasive writing, I made my students read articles about the same event in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and tell me what they noticed about the similarities and differences. The factual information would be the same, although one paper might edit out or include different details. There were no falsehoods or wild theories in either paper’s reporting. But the adjectives, in particular, were different. The active verbs attributed to a character might be different. In the Journal, in one story, for example, Hillary Clinton “shrieked.” In the Times, she spoke with conviction. If you read the Times story and the Journal article I linked at the start of this post, you’ll see that they report the same story but certainly not with the same tone. By the end of the Times story, you’re left believing it’s all a set-up job by Trump operatives to try to sink Biden’s bid to be president. By the end of the Journal story, you know that right now there is no hard evidence to link Joe Biden to any wrongdoing, but there’s enough there to believe that at the very least, Hunter Biden was benefiting by the hope of a connection.

There is a reason conservatives suspect mainstream journalism. Over the years, most major news publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, have leaned left. While they have right-wing commentators on their editorial pages, they are far fewer in number than their left-leaning commentators. In June, the Times published an editorial by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, calling for the National Guard to restore order in cities experiencing protests and rioting. After publishing it, the Times apologized, saying the piece did not meet their journalistic standards and included many errors and unsubstantiated claims. On their website, that apology appears before Cotton’s essay. The Times’s editorial page editor, James Bennet, resigned. A reading of the editorial will make it clear that there are certainly unsubstantiated claims, but the Times also acknowledges that Cotton was amenable to working with the editors and had not objected to any editorial changes or requests for more information. This was entirely the fault of the New York Times editorial team, which they also, to their credit, acknowledge, but the whole incident was handled in such a way that it reinforced conservatives’ belief that the “lame stream media” (a Rush Limbaugh coinage) unfairly censors conservative voices.

While the Times’s decision to apologize was due partly to protests from its reporters, two of the Times’s conservative editorialists expressed concern about the newspaper’s stifling of conservative opinions. It’s important to note that the Times left the Cotton essay intact, but the damage was done. If the editors had done their jobs correctly, as the Times says in its apology, “the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.” To publish an essay and then disavow it is the least desirable course of action. I also don’t think it should have been rejected. Editorial changes should have been requested, or notes inserted, in order to meet the Times’s editorial standards. But Times readers should be able to read opinions the Times editors disagree with—and form their own opinions. It’s “all the news that’s fit to print,” not “all the news liberals would agree with.”

The Times article uses the story of the Wall Street Journal and Hunter Biden’s emails to suggest that traditional news organizations, including the Times and the Journal, have a role to play going forward as more and more unverified information is disseminated by less scrupulous and more slanted “news” outlets. In a perfect world, of course, this would be true. People would turn to news organizations that have the resources and inclination, like the Wall Street Journal, to check their sources and corroborate claims before they report stories. But I don’t see that happening, except by the people who are already checking the “information” in memes or presidential tweets rather than just passing them on. We seem to be a small group. I spend a good deal of time checking on stories I see widely disseminated on Facebook because they don’t seem quite right. And there are just as many of these on the left as there are on the right, although in the current atmosphere, the left’s misinformation is generally more in the details rather than whole-cloth fabrication. Part of the problem, of course, is Facebook—and Twitter and a host of other social media platforms. Even television plays a part in this. As we see “news” shared instantaneously, we develop unrealistic expectations for how quickly a story should or can be reported accurately. I know I’ve seen something on line and turned on the BBC to get more detail only to be frustrated when the story doesn’t appear for hours. But it’s slow because the BBC is verifying before it reports. I don’t know exactly how to get around the expectation of instant news, but I think it exacerbates and is exacerbated by all the distrust and polarization we see right now. Rudy Giuliani knew that if he got the Hunter Biden story out there, the serious news outlets would be playing defense. No matter how serious or true the story turned out to be, it would be out there and people would believe it.

But this distrust, and this willingness to believe Breitbart over the New York Times and Sean Hannity over Anderson Cooper is due in large part to the arrogance of the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton in many ways epitomizes this arrogance. Clinton is obviously accomplished and intelligent, and I actually agree with many of her policy recommendations. She has also been the subject of quite a bit of sexist criticism and bullying for as long as the Clintons have been on the world stage. But sexism does not explain a lot of the anti-Clinton sentiment. Let’s start with the “deplorables” comment. The whole quote, at an LGBT donors’ event in North Carolina, was: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” After a recording of the remarks was leaked to Mother Jones magazine (ironically, it was a liberal magazine rather than Fox News or Breitbart that broke the story), Clinton did apologize and try to explain herself, but, of course, it was too late. After four years of Trump encouraging the Proud Boys, shutting down reporters, and  suggesting that protesters should be shot, I don’t totally disagree with her assessment. If you are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic, Trump most likely has your vote. But to characterize fully half of the people voting for her opponent as “deplorable” certainly sounds arrogant. And her apology was a “sorry not sorry” apology; she was apologizing because she got caught. It might not have carried such weight, however, if it had been another candidate. Hillary Clinton has a long history of blaming the other side when her side gets caught in wrongdoing—Remember the “vast right-wing conspiracy”?—and of thinking the rules don’t really apply to her, because her intentions are good. Remember her using the private email server?

The arrogance goes beyond Hillary Clinton, however. Look on Facebook to see everyday Democrats, from the beginning of the Trump presidency until now, dismissing Trump supporters as rabid, MAGA-hat-wearing idiots. And this didn’t just start with the administration’s mishandling of the pandemic. After Trump’s election, Democrats were, indeed, sore losers. But it’s not just the social-network people with time on their hands. The Democratic National Committee, which had decided to anoint Hillary Clinton as their candidate, engaged in fairly obvious dirty tricks to get Bernie Sanders, who’d actually inspired real passion in his supporters, off the stage. Once again, they decided they knew what was best for the electorate—and they didn’t trust voters to be intelligent enough to get it right.

The press was to some extent complicit as well. The major news organizations didn’t present the kind of propaganda you see on Breitbart, but they did decide to limit reporting of stories critical of Democrats. A good example of this is the Steele dossier, or more particularly the funding of the Steele dossier by the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The dossier is the compilation of allegations by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele tying Donald Trump to Russian interference with the 2016 election. It’s still not absolutely clear who knew what. There were multiple consultants involved, but it certainly looks like the Clinton campaign paid someone who made very damning allegations about Donald Trump that were subsequently dismissed by the Mueller Report. Of course, the report did find evidence of Russian interference and has plenty of proof that the Trump administration tried to hamstring the investigation, but what conservatives will remember is that the Clinton campaign, for what they see as political reasons, paid someone to smear the president. This idea was reinforced by the dismissive treatment given to the financing part of the story by news sources that were the first in line to present the allegations.

Then, when Clinton did her book tour, she was allowed by interviewers like Trevor Noah to justify the payment without question (sorry, you may not be able to access this video if you are outside the US):

In this interview, Clinton also hit a number of her fallback charges: The people questioning the funding arrangements were sexist, and the media were embarrassed for the way they mishandled the election. Presumably, if the media had handled the election correctly, she would have won. If you’ve seen any of the interviews Clinton gave about the lessons she’d learned about her loss, you know they are usually some variation of, “Yes, I should have known how awful my opponents were.” I have yet to see real reflection on personal shortcomings that might have been part of the problem—or institutional shortcomings at the DNC that might be contributing to conservative voters’ distrust. My friend who expressed her distrust of the New York Times also praised an “excellent documentary” called The Plot Against the President (after the book of the same name by the journalist Lee Smith). It seems more like a very long propaganda piece to me than a documentary, since it makes no effort to provide any response by the people and groups it levels charges at, even to refute what they say. But it will resonate with people who already believe Donald Trump’s tweets that he is the most hounded president in our country’s history. It seems that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have more in common than we might imagine. They both blame the corrupt or the idiotic on the other side for mischaracterizing them and causing their problems.

I am writing this four days before election day, although it will probably be a lot longer before we know who has won. I’m hoping that Joe Biden, who, even with all his problems seems like someone who wants to work with all members of the legislature for all Americans, wins and starts to heal some of the divisions. We know Donald Trump will only encourage more division. Either way, it’s going to take a long time for people to get over this election. Both parties need to have a long hard look at themselves. The Republican party has lost its way, primarily because of the uneasy alliance between small-government traditional conservatives and Evangelical Christians who want the country to be a Christian country and to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage. The Democratic party has to start asking itself why so many working-class lifetime Democrats have abandoned it. Mostly, members of both parties have to start thinking less about themselves and more about the people they represent.  

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