I am a journalist.
Now, before I get too full of myself, or give readers the wrong impression, I should clarify that opening statement.
The World Series starts this week. Manny Machado will be starting for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the biggest pending free agent in the game will be playing on baseball’s grandest stage representing a team playing in the media capital of the world. I play ball too, even play the same position as Manny, but in Friday night rec league games that sometimes my wife and kids come to see if it is not too hot or the mosquitoes are not too ravenous. I am not Manny Machado, but still I play. And while you are probably not going to find my byline in the New York Times or Washington Post, I still write.
I will not get rich from journalism. I will not get famous. But I am good at it. I enjoy it. And, occasionally, someone pays me for the words I write. Lately, there are significantly fewer “someones” out there as the free press is under ferocious assault by big media, big money, and big government. Maybe there is some “Big Brother” mixed-in as well?
Facebook and Twitter recently completed a significant purge of pages and sites that aggressively pushed political agendas and which the media monopolies deemed to be “spam” or otherwise unfit for their platforms. You can read the story about this purge in the Washington Post at this link.
Reverb Press, one of the “someones” that previously paid me for my words was among the sites removed from Facebook. To be clear, Facebook claims it had no issue with the nature of the content being posted, just the behavior of the sites and the propensity of using headlines they deemed to be click bait. And here is where it gets interesting.
So what is click bait? The dictionary definition seems innocuous enough: “content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” Last I checked, the purpose of every ad, pic, and piece of content on the internet is to get someone to click on it in order to make money or to gain influence. Katherine Viner, editor in chief of The Guardian blamed click bait for the current global scourge of post-truth politics claiming that such content providers were “chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity” which undermined the value of legitimate journalism and truth. Her full opinion on the subject can be read at this link.
See, that is where the issue starts to go off-course. Facebook and Twitter claim that it was not about the content, but about the teasers for the content (often, the headlines) being click bait. Yet the editor of The Guardian throws-around words like post-truth, accuracy, and veracity effectively leveling the accusation that the often eye-catching headlines generate empty clicks by depositing those clickers on a site rife with fluff, fiction, and falsehoods. I wrote more than 100 articles for Reverb Press. While Facebook and Twitter sought to erase that legacy, the original website still maintains the content. My articles can be found at this link. Not a single one contains even a single sentence of false information. My excellent editors made sure of that.
If I referenced another article, I properly cited it. If I quoted someone, I properly cited it. If I used a photo, it was one I had permission and license to use and properly attributed it to the content’s owner. The works were not opinions. They were not editorials. They were legitimate news articles focused on that day’s breaking stories and presented with a liberal lean. And see, that is the danger I alluded to earlier. The Guardian is the second most-popular English language newspaper in the world behind only the Daily Mail. Yes, even more widely read than American publications like the New York Times or Washington Post. Readership statistics can be found at this link.
The Guardian leans pretty significantly to the left as well, often so far that those on the right mockingly refer to it as ‘The Guardianista” implying communist or Marxist leanings instead of merely liberal ones. But big as they might be, they still compete with sites like Reverb Press or Nation in Distress or Reasonable People Unite when publishing online content and pursuing clicks to reward their advertisers. Rather than compete, major publications like The Guardian look at sites like those and say, “Click bait” or “Fake news”. Rather than defend fellow journalists, the media titans collect the loose market share like finding coins on the sidewalk and sit back in their leather chairs satisfied the ax did not come for them this time.
And that is how censorship truly begins. Not with the government, although the government can create a climate favorable for the seeds of censorship to take root. Censorship begins when journalists censor each other, when factually-accurate opinions no longer find column-width in newspapers or receive page views on web platforms. We have a government that should protect us. And not simply as a First Amendment issue. After all, Facebook and Twitter are private enterprises and not government departments so the First Amendment does not apply. Laws do though, but only when lawbreakers are held to account. But first and foremost we must protect each other, but it seems we no longer do.
Facebook and Twitter were flooded with political advertisements and overrun by bots and other fake accounts in the months leading up to the 2016 election, much of the nefarious activity originating in (or sponsored by) Russia. President Donald Trump insists Russia had no influence on the outcome of the election, and even if it is someday proved that his campaign colluded with Russia to exert influence, there can never be proof that influence actually changed a single mind. That does not mean a crime was not committed if the collusion took place, or it there were efforts subsequent to the collusion to obstruct justice. There is no Richter scale for political earthquakes. We simply lack a way of measuring the impact. We sure can see the devastation afterwards and appreciate that we must rebuild carefully so the damage will be mitigated next time.
To be fair, in March 2012, Mitt Romney said of Russia, “This is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight for every cause for the world’s worst actors.” Months later, when Romney was the Republican nominee for president and was asked a question about al-Qaeda in a debate, President Obama used his rebuttal time for a little snark, “”Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda. You said Russia … the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Politifact’s verification of the quotes can be found at this link. Mitt Romney was correct. Barack Obama was stunningly incorrect. The Cold War never ended. Russia simply ran out of money and had to take a 25-year break.
Vladimir Putin is a lot like The Joker in the Batman comics. He thrives on creating chaos. He is chaos. The same applies to al-Qaeda. The attacks on 9/11 were not about buildings (although the symbolism of the targets was significant) nor about airplanes. They were about chaos. They were about pulling back that blanket of safety and security America had been able to cloak itself in for the 70 years since Pearl Harbor, pulling back that blanket and making America see evil the rest of the world faces every day. By getting involved in the 2016 United States presidential election (and earlier in 2016, the Brexit vote), Putin was able to replace the ropes we used in our internal tugs of war with machine guns we aimed at “the enemies” on the other side.
Putin did not care if “Stay” or “Leave” emerged victorious in the Brexit vote. He knew that the two sides were evenly divided. He knew there would be rhetoric, and that the heat of that rhetoric would be turned-up as the vote approached. Putin is like a bookmaker. He does not wager. He is not a gambling man. And really, in most cases, he could not care any less who wins and who loses. He makes his money on the spread, the vig, the juice, whatever you choose to call the gap between what is wagered and what is paid-out. Putin fanned the flames of the Brexit vote so there would be no acceptable winner.
He did the same with the 2016 presidential election. Sure, Donald Trump was the best-case scenario for Putin if the goal was to destabilize America and weaken the post-WWII liberal alliance. But had Hillary Clinton won, Putin would have fanned the flames of Trump’s “rigged election” claims and done all he could to incite a civil war. Do I think there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin’s Russia in 2016? I have no doubt. But Putin is not the sort to look for partners. He looks for patsies. He looks for things he can offer today that he can extort you with down the road. So the Trump campaign may well have colluded, received nothing of value in return, and will one day take the fall for Putin meddling in (but not determining the outcome of) the election.
But back to the government…
Last October, Facebook executives were called before the Senate to answer for the mess they had made (or at least, significantly contributed to) during the 2016 election season. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) bellowed to Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch, “People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They’re political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time — that’s what I hear that these platforms do.” Facebook basically shrugged and claimed that bad actors could just convert currency so refusing to take ads paid-for in rubles would not solve the problem of Russian interference. Maybe I am just cynical, but that sounds a lot like the GOP/NRA argument against tougher gun laws. People will just find ways around them anyway, so why even bother?
But these hearings came just months after the Department of Justice had pressured Facebook to provide names and online histories for nearly 6,000 Facebook users who “liked” a Facebook page called “DisruptJ20” which organized protests during Donald Trump’s inauguration earlier in 2017. So within a two-month window, there is a squeeze put on Facebook from two sides. On one side is the DOJ basically channeling President Richard Nixon and seeking to go fishing for “enemies” on social media. On the other side is the Senate threatening to implement significant legal barriers to Facebook’s business model if the online kingpin did not begin to police itself better.
Executives from Facebook and Twitter were back in Congress in September 2018 to answer more questions and to provide updates on the progress they had made to safeguard the platforms as another election season roared ahead. Congressional Republicans echoed earlier complaints from President Trump and members of the conservative media that the online platforms (and media in general) is inherently biased against conservatives and for liberal, despite any proof of the claim and despite Facebook and Google documenting that their algorithms do not take any political leanings into consideration when ranking pages or deciding what content is appropriate. Facebook then partnered with international affairs think-tank The Atlantic Council to root-out the sites and pages causing discord and sowing controversy. Facebook has all the tools it needs to do the work, so it seems more likely The Atlantic Council was brought-in to lend an air of impartiality to Facebook’s purge.
Injecting a little opinion here among the facts: I do not know if Facebook’s and Twitter’s recent actions were motivated by political bias or political pressure. But remember when Putin meddled in Brexit and the 2016 United States presidential election? He did not care who won as long as chaos reigned and both sides suffered. The same dynamic applies here. Both sides lose unique voices. Both sides lose the ability to congregate and motivate. Sure, it hurts liberals more. Conservatives have Fox News. Liberals have MSNBC and CNN, but both break their backs bending over to appear impartial, almost to the point they sometimes take on a conservative slant just so they will not be accused of being liberal. And as Democrats were uniting on social media in resistance to all things Trump, the losses cut deeper on that side. Think of it like taxes. Taxing everyone $5 hurts the guy who only has $20 to his name way more than it hurts the billionaire. Knocking out pages with millions of followers, even if both sides lose the same number of pages and followers, hurts the side playing catch-up worse.
Facebook and Twitter threw away more than 800 pages and groups with millions of followers because the pages had a political lean and sought to leverage that lean to motivate people to vote and maybe make enough for the authors and administrators of the sites to buy themselves dinner. The editors at Reverb Press when I worked there often went without pay some months so the writers could have a bigger share or the meager advertising revenue, knowing that it was the content people came for and that without writers there was no content. It was never about profits.
Journalism is NOT about being impartial. It is about being factual.
If one person tells me it is raining, and another tells me it is sunny, it is NOT my responsibility as a journalist to print both opinions. It is my responsibility to step outside and to see for myself. Then, to come back inside and to print the truth, then to investigate what reason the other person had to lie to you. But these days it seems America is as partisan as it has been since the Civil War yet journalists will not take sides.
The other night, Van Jones (who I used to respect) interviewed Jared Kushner on CNN (which I also used to respect, but not in a long while).
Surely Jones would come out punching, right?
“I want to start — how did you get this job? I mean, you have, like, the dopest job in the world — the secretary of everything. Does it bug you when they call it secretary of everything? You’re a business guy. How did you wind up in this position?”
That was the question Van Jones started his Jared Kushner interview with on national television.
“Dopest job” makes me think I am watching old Stuart Scott highlights on Sport Center (RIP Stuart) instead of watching a political interview with one of the most powerful influencers in the White House and Middle East.
Well, Van, the answer is nepotism.
Kushner was born wealthy and his daddy let him run the family business. He married Ivanka. She too was born wealthy and her daddy let her run their family business. Her daddy (born wealthy) had inherited the family business from his daddy who let him run it. When her daddy became President of the United States, he naturally selected his daughter and son-in-law to run our country.
Even the Washington Post can no longer avoid making a story one-sided, even if it is.
On Monday evening, they published an article detailing all the fear and falsehoods President Trump is spewing across the country as he campaigns non-stop in the final weeks before the midterms. That was the headline, “Trump and Republicans settle on fear – and falsehoods – as a midterm strategy”. But the Post could not resist adding balance:
“Republicans accuse Democrats of using scare tactics as well. They are warning voters that the president and his party will decimate their health-care coverage by repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and arguing, to varying degrees, that Trump is unfit to lead the nation.”
Well, let’s see…Republicans have voted 70 times (just as of summer 2017) to repeal Obamacare. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated last week that should the Republicans win enough seats in the Senate this midterm (and retain control of the House) that they would revisit repealing Obamacare as he considers the past failures to repeal the law a “disappointment.”
The media needs to STOP, right now.
STOP acting as if Donald Trump’s habitual lying does not matter.
STOP acting as if legitimate concerns raised by Democrats based on stated Republican intentions are also just campaign falsehoods.
In 2016, the media went out of their way (and often, out of bounds) to portray Hillary Clinton as equally corrupt (or corruptible) and as morally bankrupt as Donald Trump. Every day the media presented the argument as choosing the lesser of two evils. But there was a difference between the candidates.
Now, as the midterms approach, we get Van Jones speaking hip-hop and throwing Jared Kushner softballs instead of asking him what he knows about Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince, and bone saws.
We get the Washington Post treating Republican plans to repeal Obamacare as the same sort of fiction as Trump’s imaginary middle class tax cut. And all one need do is follow the president on Twitter, or listen to him speak, to know Democrats are not exaggerating when questioning his fitness to lead. And that is not partisan bias. The man is mentally unfit, maybe mentally unstable.
Facebook and Twitter said, and I am parsing their words here, that they were eliminating sources that only looked to sow dissension and reap profits. They did this one month before a critical midterm election knowing that the controversy would rage right through the midterms and beyond. So who remains? Their big advertisers. And instead of having an opportunity to read news that tells the truth, readers will get news that objectively allows both sides to have their say and to counter the facts with their own narratives.
Look, most of my posts take several hours to write and fact-check. When I wrote for Yahoo or Reverb, it was a good earner for me if an article reached 3,000 hits. I might even make enough to go to Starbucks. Yes, a 3,000 click article would earn me around $5.00 in today’s world of depressed advertising rates. Now, with the way Facebook blocks political posts, I am lucky if my articles get 300 hits.
But I write them anyway.
So do lots of other people.
We do not mislead you.
We do not sucker you in so we can make a penny off having conned you into clicking.
We want to share ideas.
We want to hear your opinions.
We want to figure out how we fix the America which was not broken before but somehow is now after having been Made Great Again.
We want free and open discourse so critical to a vibrant and healthy society.
Sadly, the government does not think that is a good idea. Facebook and Twitter only think sharing ideas on their platforms is a positive thing if it generates positive revenue for them. The mainstream media is being squeezed by advertisers and wants to keep as many eyes and ears as possible, and as the country is split so evenly, they think being partisan means losing half their audience while ignoring that their current behavior will cost them more.
I am not naive. Everything in America always has (and still does) come down to three things: money, power, and control. Those with the money make the rules and can pay to have those rules enforced (or ignored).
Our government scares me. Censorship scares me. The massive influence of social media scares me. The weakness of the mainstream media scares me. The normalization of violence and racism scares me. All these things should scare you too. But what should really scare you is that today, I can still sit at my keyboard and type these words. The day might come in America where such opinions are outlawed, illegal, or punishable. Worse, that day might be closer than you think.