It’s The Sun Wot Won It… the topsy-turvy world of American media – and why it’s dangerous

By Mince Pie

In this week of dramatic developments on both sides of the Atlantic, I write from 35,000 feet above the Indian Ocean, having made a last minute trip home to London. A week surrounded by tea, queueing and the British media offered up much food for thought.

The UK is in the grips of election fever (or rather election malaise). After 3 major votes (Scottish Independence, General Election, Brexit) in two years, the British people will head to the polls again on June 8th after Prime Minster Theresa May called a surprise “snap” election.

In that context, in a supposed world of 24 hour news, fake news and social media hysteria one would expect wall-to-wall election coverage with vehement opinions flying all over the place. And yet, the British seem oddly calm and level headed about all this and the invective of American politics seems strangely absent. So I started to wonder why that might be.

One could chalk this up to natural British diffidence and refusal to get too excited about anything in case it “starts to rain later.” I don’t think that’s it though. I have been a resident of Australia for the last three years and have seen the same thing there.

I think the comparative equanimity of British and Australian voters comes not from the absence of political invective in media but from who is supplying that invective. In the USA, the TV channels are fundamentally biased towards either left or right. The TV companies that soak up the majority of news viewing were founded with agendas in mind: MSNBC, Fox etc. Sure if you want unbiased news coverage on TV you can find it (on CBS for example) but the big audiences are with the commercial behemoths. In general, my experience of the US is that if you want a level headed approach to news reporting and news commentary you have to pick up a newspaper.

In Europe and in Australasia, this situation is completely reversed. Small countries (in either geography or population) that have national broadcasters (the BBC, the ABC, TF1, ZDF etc) have embedded the concept of the neutral TV news report. In the UK, the BBC is duty bound by its governance to report both sides of an argument (in fact it often gets in trouble with conservatives for “sympathizing with the bad guys” because of it). Even the majority of the commercial channels get their news coverage from one source – Independent Television News (ITN) – which has a long history of outstanding independent news reporting and investigation. Monopoly rules prohibit agenda setting moguls like Rupert Murdoch from owning 100% of the news coverage of their own channels. Sky News (part owned by Murdoch’s right wing News International) has a rightward, populist tilt but he can’t push it too far. Certainly not as far as he’s pushed Fox in the USA.

The print media on the other hand is entirely different. From the holier-than-thou lefty liberalism of the Guardian to the right wing invective of the Daily Mail, the British press is a whole smorgasbord of vibrant political opinions of all stripes. The press are famous for claiming responsibility for shifting elections, particularly close ones. The support of the key tabloids is still, even in the declining age of print, seen as crucial to any would-be-leader’s chance of success.

So, why does having an even handed TV news underpinned by biased newsprint produce a more stable political culture than the other way around? Why do the Brits and Aussies manage to keep a lid on the invective when Americans do not?

The obvious answer is that print is much smaller. 5m people will watch the BBC TV news in an evening. Another 2m will be watching an ITN production on another channel. At the height of its powers the Daily Mail will sell only a third as many copies as that. The quality press (the right wing Telegraph, the centrist but establishment Times and the lefty Guardian) will come up with around a million readers a day between them. This creates a natural foundation of people who get either all or at least part of their news coverage from more even handed sources. That doesn’t happen in the US. The only people getting unskewed news coverage are the readers of certain print publications (The New York Times for example) or viewers of venerable TV channels like CBS.

Print also encourages thought through its format. Long form content that uses only one of the senses (sight) is a relative rarity in the digital age. Whilst sensationalist headlines sell newspapers, they don’t get far without the content underneath them. TV news isn’t like that. A big headline, a few talking points and on to the next story with no pause for thought provocation or analysis is the staple of lots of commercial TV news operations.

A vibrant mix of news is good – it showcases new thinking, new ideas and ensures minority opinion is heard. Bias is good as long as it is balanced by a healthy source of objectivity. The British, French and Australians have a news culture where TV is even handed and print is politically skewed. The USA is the other way around – and its news culture is all the more divisive and dangerous for it.

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Trump’s Russian Roulette: we’ve got the cover-up, but where’s the crime?

The circumstantial evidence that Donald Trump, his campaign, his family, and his businesses have unsavory ties to Russia has grown to near-undeniable levels. Still, criminal offenses have yet to be uncovered. Currently, the Trump Administration’s only crime is lying by Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions about non-criminal communications with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Now, the news that Jared Kushner and disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn met with Kislyak together suggests Flynn’s interactions with Russia were undertaken with Trump’s knowledge.  When a leader runs Play #7 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Let a Henchman Take the Fall, the involvement of multiple close advisers almost always means that the leader was involved in the relevant high jinks. The problem with calls for impeachment and consistent comparisons to Watergate is that Watergate started with an actual crime committed by Nixon’s associates; when it comes to Trump and Russia, his henchmen are behaving as if he is covering something up, but we don’t know what it is, or how we could possibly prosecute it.

Watergate and Russiagate have a lot of similarities . . .

Both scandals started with attacks on the DNC. The DNC has got to get its act together on the security front. In 1972, Tricky Dick and his (apparently quite poorly trained) henchmen kicked off the Watergate scandal by getting caught in flagrante delicto bugging the DNC offices in the Watergate hotel. In 2016, the Democratic primary and general election were thrown into turmoil, much to the detriment of the ultimate democratic nominee, by the hacking and leaking of private DNC e-mails. Its offices were apparently bugged again as well.

The immediate culprit indicated a larger conspiracy. While it took much longer to link the President and his men to the burglary and its perpetrators, it was quickly discovered that one of those men was a security consultant for the Republican Party. Likewise, in 2016, three days after the first DNC e-mails were released by Wikileaks, analysts had already discovered the DNC servers were hacked by individuals using a Cyrillic keyboard in Moscow.

The sabotage was undertaken in favor of the Republican candidate. In October 1972, the Washington Post reported the FBI’s conclusion that the Watergate break-in was part of a widespread campaign of political sabotage undertaken on behalf of the Committee for the Reelection of President Nixon. Mr. Trump has received a similar assist, if from a different actor. In December 2016, 17 US intelligence agencies concluded that Vladimir Putin ordered Russian operatives to hack the DNC in order to get Donald Trump elected.

Henchmen have lied about their contact with conspirators. In the Watergate scandal, the first lying henchman to be unmasked was John Mitchell, former US Attorney General and the Director of Nixon’s reelection campaign. Mitchell initially denied that the campaign had anything to do with the Watergate break-in, and was contradicted by evidence found by the FBI and Washington Post (See above link to the Post’s chronology of Watergate). Obviously the dominos fell from there. Dominos seem to be teetering among Trump’s cronies. Michael Flynn had to resign for lying about his communications with Kislyak, and now Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from future investigations as penance for his fibbing.  The problem is, both mens’ actions, while somewhat irregular, weren’t illegal. We only see a cover up because they are acting like they are conducting a cover up (which makes them pretty terrible conspirators).

But it’s the differences that count . . .

Russia changes the ballgame. The involvement of a hostile foreign power makes Russiagate a whole different animal from Watergate or any other Presidential scandal. Watergate started with a petty, prosecutable crime committed within the jurisdiction of the United States. Within a couple of months the authorities had hard evidence linking Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign to the burglary.  After that, reporters and the FBI just had to prove the intuitively obvious notion that someone in the White House knew about the crime. Nixon’s henchmen went to jail for obstructing justice in association with a burglary.  They were covering up a simple crime. Russiagate is not going to be that simple.

Russian hacking won’t take Trump down. Starting at square one, to do anything about Trump’s ties to Russia, we would need to impeach, and for impeachment, we need a “high crime or misdemeanor.” The impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice actually sets the bar for what constitutes a “high crime or misdemeanor” pretty low. However, we only know about one crime so far: the hacking of the DNC, and we know that was committed in Moscow by the Russian government or agents thereof. In order to prosecute Trump or any of his advisers on that charge, we would have to prove that they knew about it and conspired to enable it in some fashion, or covered it up afterward. This seems improbable.  Vladimir Putin does not need the Trump campaign to figure out how to hack a server, nor does Wikileaks need help leaking it. On top of that, in order to prosecute Trump and his henchmen for a crime committed by a foreign government, a prosecutor would pretty much have to prove treason, and that seems like a stretch, given that the hack was against the DNC, a private political organization, not the US government.

How do we get a conviction for Russiagate? We may not. This may just be a seedy association that looms over the administration like a bad smell.  For all the strange praise of Putin and lying henchmen, the very diligent Press has yet to find any concrete favoritism or quid pro quo granted to Russia (though with time, Trump may be foolish enough to supply one). The Steele dossier (the one with the peeing prostitutes) alleged that a Trump adviser was bribed with 19% of the Russian Rosneft corporation in exchange for the US lifting sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs, but there has been no quid pro quo, so no one has done anything provably wrong – yet. We know the Trump Organization has extensive financial ties to Russia, but can’t prove it. However, I think financial misconduct is where to look for a cover up. A group of legal scholars has filed a suit demanding that Trump open his books.  If and when that lawsuit succeeds, we will be able to follow the money, and if there is anything we know, it’s that Trump has been extremely shady with money his entire career. Like Al Capone, I think Trump’s horrible financial practices are most likely to bring him down, whether he is conspiring treacherously with Russia or not.

 

 

Calling People Nazis: walk softly and carry a big example

I think at this point everyone is familiar with Godwin’s law, or the idea that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches.” Lots of people love comparing their opposition to Hitler. We certainly saw plenty of Obama posters with tiny mustaches during the rise of the Tea Party, and the Left definitely called George W. Bush a fascist on more than one occasion. The problem is, the comparison is now incredibly commonplace, and has therefore lost a lot of its potential impact.  Up until now, when people called each other Nazis, what they really meant was “your guy is the most evil guy to run a country ever.”Now that we have an Administration that is actually acting like Nazis, everyone who thinks Trump is a genuine threat to our Republic needs to be selective about comparisons and use real examples.

Obviously I do not personally have a problem with calling, for instance, Steve Bannon a Nazi.  I am writing a Dictator’s Playbook almost exclusively based on Nazi tactics because I think the Trump Administration has been running some of those plays.  However, I think it’s important to explain why we are making these comparisons.  When people hear “Nazi” or “Hitler” they think of the murder of 13 million people.  I don’t think anyone is saying Trump is going to murder 13 million people (although it’s worth noting that the Final Solution was actually a “solution” to a failed deportation program – chew on that for a second).  The important comparison here is to the Nazi Party’s tactics from 1932-1935.  That is when they destroyed a constitutional republic.  Even if Hitler had lost power in ’34 or ’35, Germans still would have had to go back to the drawing board and create a new system of government.  That is the concern with the Trump Administration.  That it will so undermine our constitutional regime that we will lose the institutions we have valued for over 200 years.

So, when you call someone a Nazi, talk about how they intentionally scapegoated marginalized groups, undermined their political opposition, played the victim, discredited the press, co-opted or removed judges, created an extrajudicial  prison system to undermine courts and lawyers, used violence to intimidate political opponents and keep the people afraid, and lied to justify administration objectives (all of which are soon to be added to the Dictator’s Playbook).  Explain that the significance of the Nazis isn’t just the horror they inflicted on the Jews or the rest of Europe; it’s that they produced a template for how to turn a literate, informed, democratic society into the enablers and supporters of a deranged dictatorship.  Fake news isn’t new people – between 1933 and 1944 Germany went from 4,700 newspapers to 1,100 newspapers.  The Nazis shut down opposition papers, and everyone else stopped talking about politics or fell in line.  So walk softly unless you have a big example, because we can’t let that happen to us.