Banter M Issue 59

Are We Really This Reckless, Stupid and Crazy? After watching President Obama's amazing speech at the Democratic convention last night, Chez Pazienza asks whether Americans are idiotic enough to follow the "unearthly orange pied piper into oblivion" or sane enough to listen to the voice of reason and hope coming from the Democrats?

The Real Danger Of Trump’s Russian Connection Isn’t About Emails - Lenny DeFranco is less concerned that Donald Trump is inviting Russian influence into the election. he's worried him inviting their tactics. "Russian meddling is not where the real threat lies," write DeFranco. "The problem isn’t Trump inviting Putin to sway public opinion. It’s Trump imitating Putin’s method for doing so."

The Stories Behind the Story - Tommy Christopher settles a couple of old scores that came due this past week when the man who had him blacklisted from Fox News got the boot, and Joe Scarborough decided to complain about Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Are We Really This Reckless, Stupid and Crazy?

by Chez Pazienza

I'm watching Barack Obama speak right now, at the Democratic National Convention. It is what it's always been when this man steps up to a microphone and allows the contents of his powerful mind and equally powerful heart to pour forth: magic, the kind of stirring, near-anthemic oratory that can lift a nation and has done so for more than seven years now. Seeing him, listening to him, I'm moved in immeasurable ways, because as always he makes me believe that we're a country that's both mighty in terms of our resolve and in terms of our compassion for our fellow man. He makes me believe that the better angels of our nature are what make us great. He makes me believe, as maybe no one has before, in the promise of America. His very existence as President of the United States is a testament to our moral authority, to the fact that we're still this world's shining city on a hill and can remain that way if we only embrace what's right and true. I'm not sure I'll ever see another president like Obama in my lifetime and that makes me deeply sad but also undeniably proud that I lived during his time in the White House.  

But there's another emotion that claws at my insides as I listen to this brilliant, empathetic, humble, graceful and eminently capable man who's led our country for the past seven-and-a-half years, and it's an emotion I've never felt before during one of his addresses. Fear. A terrible and ominous anxiety for an American future not simply without him, but potentially in the hands of his polar opposite -- someone not brilliant but gleefully ignorant, not empathetic but sociopathic, not humble but an unrepentant narcissist, not graceful but an unhinged trainwreck, and not the least bit capable, but in fact temperamentally unfit for any kind of public service. I'm hoping that through sheer force of will, Barack Obama can convince any hold-outs out there to step up to the plate for Hillary Clinton, maybe the most singularly qualified presidential candidate in my lifetime and a fine choice to continue the Obama legacy. There's a possibility, however, that the next president will in fact be Donald Trump. And that should leave every single American citizen not currently confined to a mental institution nervous as hell.

It's true that November is way off and I'd suggest against any sort of panic, as we've watched the poll numbers rise and fall, plateau and plunge, more than a few times since the ostensible general election began. It's also true that most experts will tell you that polling in a general election is unreliable until both conventions are over and Americans have had a chance to see both candidates in their element. But when one party of the two major parties in this country has put up as its representative and champion for the most powerful position on earth a monster like Trump, anything that doesn't every minute of every day look like a total blowout on the side of righteousness, you worry a little. As polling savant Nate Silver has warned over the past few days, if the election were held right now Trump would likely win. As unbelievable and unconscionable as that sounds -- he would win. And he'll continue to have a chance of winning right up to election day. 

It's impossible to process the notion that there are people in this country still unable to see Trump for the existential threat to our American democratic experiment that he is. I could list the litany of offenses he's committed on just the campaign trail alone that should've disqualified him a thousand times over, but the thing about Trump is, given that he's incapable of suppressing his most contemptible qualities, there's always new material to mine for examples of his unfitness for the office. He's always more than happy to give you brand new reasons why he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the White House. I write this with the knowledge that just today Trump gave us what should be a campaign-immolating moment when he called upon Russia to either hack Hillary Clinton's private server, or, if the country already has, just release whatever it's found -- hopefully, in Trump's mind, a cache of deleted e-mails he assumes are somehow incriminating. It's already a strong possibility that Russian intelligence hacked the DNC and, through its co-conspirators at the morally bankrupt Wikileaks, leaked e-mails intended to throw the U.S. presidential election for Trump. Now Trump has basically called upon Russia and his love-interest Vladimir Putin to help him further. 

The word "treason" got tossed around quite a bit Wednesday as a result of Trump's statement, but whether it qualifies as an outright traitorous offensive it's surely unprecedented behavior from someone running for President of the United States. But this kind of thing should be expected from Trump by now. The thing is, how in the hell does it continue to fly with so many Americans, specifically American conservatives? There was a time when conservatism meant that you never downplayed the red threat, now apparently the partisan divide is so vast internally that if you're a Republican it's better to align yourself with an anti-American nightmare like Putin than with Hillary Clinton or anyone else directly across the aisle from you. Donald Trump literally doesn't believe in freedom. He believes only in his own freedom to pursue his own naked self-interest and to crush any opposition. What this means is that for the first time in my lifetime, there's a vast swath of Americans who would rather live under an authoritarian strongman regime than under the Jeffersonian democracy this country was founded on. It's the damndest thing I've ever seen.

Now certainly I'm willing to step outside the bubble that I can't help but inhabit to some extent, as we all do in the era of curated lives on social media. There are plenty of towns and plenty of people who've seen their lives wrecked by globalization, who've seen themselves left behind and who maybe rightly feel abandoned in our supposedly brave new world. If the Democrats are smart, which I think they are, they'll reach out to these people and offer them real hope and a real plan for improvement because in the absence of that they will turn to whoever promises them the moon. The same goes for many Americans' sense of safety. It's a fact that each of us is relatively safe here inside the United States, from threats both foreign and domestic, but Trump did something cynical and surprisingly smart at his manure fire of a convention last week in Cleveland. 

Sure, Trump's rhetoric was apocalyptic, but it was designed to be that way because all he has as an authoritarian is the public's fear of being victimized. And by playing up the various phantom threats supposedly coming for Middle America and its children -- terrorists, Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrants -- he turned the media into unwitting accomplices. He may have declared war on the press, but he knows that the press will do his dirty work for him over the next several months by breathlessly broadcasting every incident of the kind of violence he warned about to every corner of the land. If there's a terrorist attack, or a police shooting, or any act that would seem to imperil the lives of average Americans, the media will do what they always do with it: run that shit into the ground. And every minute it's beamed out across the airwaves or internet it potentially helps make Trump's case that there's badness lurking in every shadow and you need to turn to him for protection because only he can protect you. That's how an authoritarian rises to power.  

Why can't more people see this, though? At the risk of sounding like an elitist, because being too aloof is a recipe for disaster in a general election, it's difficult to wrap your head around the fact that so many people seem to buy into Trump's confidence game. He's played on the ugly underbelly of our culture and under the guise of stamping out the dreaded specter of political correctness has made it okay to be a racist, misogynist and xenophobe out in the open. There are certainly those among us -- specifically white conservatives -- so terrified of losing the privilege that they've confused with America's singular cultural identity that Trump represents their last stand. But that doesn't account for the entirety of his support. Are we really this reckless, stupid and crazy or this accepting of the idea of someone reckless, stupid and crazy as the leader of the free world? Are there those among us so desperate for a supposed reversal of their own fortunes that they'll follow this unearthly orange pied piper into oblivion? What's become of us that Donald Trump can even be in the position he's in right now, let alone the potential leader of the free world? 

President Obama just wrapped up his speech. It was a barn-burner, making not only the case for Hillary Clinton but for light in the dark, optimism in the face of fear and, yes, democracy over demagoguery. As he's done so many times, he made Donald Trump and the party that's elevating him through terror tactics look small. So, so small. Let's hope America listened. 

Next: Why I Don’t Care About Donald Trump’s Invitation To Commit Espionage by Lenny DeFranco

Why I Don’t Care About Donald Trump’s Invitation To Commit Espionage

by Lenny DeFranco

Feel free to work up a lather over Donald Trump’s promise that Russia should release Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. You’ll be in good company.

Since the incident yesterday, every journo this side of Inspire magazine has decried Trump’s words as something more insidious than mere bombast. Some say he grazed the edge of treason. Political figures on both sides of the screen and the aisle have unanimously come out to express their gall. Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, not usually a voluble partisan, said “that kind of statement only reflects the fact that he truly is not qualified to be president of the United States.” On that count, again, Trump’s statement is in good company.

Personally, I think this story is a bunch of nothing. Donald Trump has said so many monumentally stupid and anti-American things, not the least of which is his derogatory “Make America Great Again” slogan, that it’s almost arbitrary to say the address to Putin is any worse. How can you go “beyond the pale” when your campaign is a fantasy of pure whiteness?

Speaking into the camera at his strongman hero Putin is not what makes him dangerous. I’m not worried that Donald Trump is inviting Russian influence into the election. I’m more concerned he’s inviting their tactics.

***

The guy has said two things more geopolitically dangerous within the last week alone. A few days ago, he obviously improvised and has since reiterated the idea that he would tear up our treaty obligation if the event ever came to pass where NATO was needed. Trump, a man whose lone interaction with the word hegemony was when he turned down her housing application, said that only countries who were “paid up” would enjoy the protection assured by the longstanding agreement. The service they’re supposed to have paid for, I guess, is the privilege of having the American military stationed on their soil. Wait till he finds out the Viet Cong read The Art of the Deal and plan to settle for pennies on the dollar.

Trump also said he would renegotiate the Geneva Conventions. The starting point for this fifth iteration of the international accord would be the permission of torture. “I am a person that believes in enhanced interrogation, yes,” Trump said. “And by the way, it works.” For those counting, that’s two lies in one: First, torture does not work. Second, Trump is not a person. He’s the flesh incarnation an Armani sock draped over an unimpressive erection.

Both of these statements refer to an international outlook that puts us in far graver danger than goading Hillary Clinton by way of Vladimir Putin.

And look, you have to admit, the criticism of Trump’s Russia line has been a bit one-sided. I’m serious. He’s not the one who brought Vladimir Putin into the conversation; the Democrats did it when they implied that not only had Russian agents hacked their computers, but then that they leaked the emails to help Trump win. The Russian hacker theory supposedly has some substantiation, but the motive is pure speculation. Does anyone else find that unseemly?

The New York Times called Trump’s statement “extraordinary.” But was it really more extraordinary than the DNC alleging collusion between Trump and America’s favorite heel? Worse yet, the allegation leveled at Trump seems to be covered in very few of the articles expressing outrage over his supposed encouragement of espionage. Which is strange, because it’s a big part of the story.

The way I see it, Trump’s words were a jocular response to this low-ish blow. First he’s told that he’s in cahoots with Putin. This was the closest I’ve ever seen to an American party shouting “commie!” at their political opponent. Trump’s response, reasonably enough, was to simultaneously play along and deflect attention back onto a scandal of Hillary’s: “OK, if I’m buddies with Putin, then, hey! Vlad! Do me a favor and release the emails we really want to see!”

You could argue that the campaign trail is no place for jocular responses to serious (albeit baseless) allegations. It’s also no place for a dimwit reality star who figured out how to hack the democratic process. As a Trump supporter would say, it is what it is.

Besides, Russian meddling is not where the real threat lies. The problem isn’t Trump inviting Putin to sway public opinion. It’s Trump imitating Putin’s method for doing so.

***

Last year, Vice News published an interview with the head of Lithuania’s Ministry of Defense. In it, the Colonel who runs the operation shared a deeply disturbing insight about how Russia’s propaganda has evolved in the information age.

In the old days, Soviet propagandists could do their jobs by presenting a narrative and forbidding the consumption of anything that challenged it. Foreign ideas, culture, and thoughts were outlawed.

These days, you can’t do that. Information flows freely and beyond the control of censors. So the propaganda pivoted. Now, through Putin-era organs like the Russia Today (RT) television channel, the Kremlin sprays as many lines of narrative as it can dream up. There is no longer one story presented. There are a dizzying number; so many, in fact, that the average viewer is left to throw their hands up in the air and conclude that nothing is truly knowable. It is stultification by confusion.

Here’s the kicker. When facts are unknowable and truth is unverifiable, you end up trusting only the guy who seems to be masterfully in control, driving his own narrative: the guy with the power. He’s the one who can save you from being adrift in a sea of ignorance. Other people might be naive, but by definition, he is not. Misinformation, in other words, is crucial to building the case for a strongman.

We who have the education or the intelligence to know that some facts are, indeed, verifiable, generally sneer at Trump supporters for their loyalty in the face of his overt lies. You’ve probably heard the refrain, “It doesn’t matter if Trump gets caught lying! His supporters don’t care! It makes them like him more!”

Well, here’s your explanation. Trump’s incessant lying is a tactic. He’s good at it, too. He sells his known falsehoods with conviction. He claims one thing about anti-police violence that corroborates your own racial anxieties and cultural frustrations. “Mainstream media” says another. Both seem equally valid in your eyes, but you’re not naive. Everyone’s stats are a little full of shit. The question of who you’re going to believe comes down to who you want to believe.

Why do Trump supporters not care when he lies? Because it’s proof that he is a candidate built for the new world, in which there are no facts. This strategy is the truly insidious import from Russia.


Even the leaked DNC emails contribute to this strategy. Debbie Wasserman Schultz says one thing, but plans another. Hillary pretends to fight fair, but takes low blows behind the scenes. While information exfiltration is worrisome--and maybe a wake-up call to the DNC to figure out a way to stop getting hacked--the assumption that nothing is what it seems is more insidious. It erodes trust and drives people to the closest savior. And when they find him, they generally don’t care what the Geneva Conventions have to say about it.

Next: The Stories Behind The Story - by Tommy Christopher

The Stories Behind The Story

by Tommy Christopher

Everybody's talking about the big, fat, creepy news out of Fox News, namely the resignation of Fox News CEO and Jabba the Hutt Tribute Person Roger Ailes over allegations of disgusting serial sexual harassment and worse. Less noticed was the resignation of Fox News programming executive Michael Clemente, which may not be as important to all of you, but which bears special significance for me.

Since I got into journalism nine years ago, I've developed a "special" relationship with Fox News that was shitty right from the start, even when I was on their side.

That's right, in my first bit of reporting on Fox News, I was actually in their corner on a specific issue. The subject, then, was filmmaker Robert Greenwald, and I unexpectedly found myself in agreement with Fox, and disagreement with Greenwald, on the issue of a la carte cable. Greenwald had agreed to do an interview with me, so I contacted Fox News to try and get their side of the story. 

It was my first contact with them, and I got a Fox News spokesman whose name was, and I'm not shitting you, Rich White (I would later joke that that’s his name, not his demographic), who took the better part of an afternoon, and several intense meetings, to arrive at the statement he gave me, and even then, only on the condition that I not give Greenwald the chance to respond in print. He acted like he was giving me the scoop of the century.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to agree to any of those conditions, since Fox had already given the same statement to another reporter.

Here’s the response they gave me: “Is Greenwald still alive, or is it just his career that’s dead?”

Little more than a month into my professional writing career, the episode was an eye-opening lesson in dealing with public relations reps. At the time, I was shocked that Fox hadn’t jumped at the chance to engage in a substantive debate on the issue at hand, but the calculation was that it was better to project an image of aloof ambivalence toward Greenwald (despite furious behind-the-scenes action in composing the response) than to engage on the substance. That's been Fox's M.O. ever since I've been in the business, snot over substance.

It was also an indication of the arrogance that permeates their PR culture, the idea that they can leverage the most meager crumb into major journalistic concessions. This is, I would learn, how they deal with journalists they think they can push around, and it works on a lot of them.

My second contact with Fox News was at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. It was actually a lot like this year, except the idiots protesting the nominee weren't rooting for the other candidate, they were just being foot-stampy. A Fox News crew was attacked by protesters during an otherwise peaceful march organized by Re-Create '68. I had spent about half an hour filming the same crew just before the march began. The reporter, Griff Jenkins, got into a little dustup with an independent journalist named Shreef Aleem. Griff had been trying to interview activist Ward Churchill, and had gotten a little too pushy.

Never one to miss an opportunity to provide fairness and balance, I spoke with Griff, and I followed them as they delivered on a promise to interview Shreef fairly and balancedly. 

While we waited, Jenkins was being interviewed by a student journalist, and when he claimed Fox to be "fair and balanced," I asked him if that included calling Michelle Obama a "baby mama."

That was my first official appearance on Fox News' shit list, although at the time, I had a much worse problem with the McCain campaign, which had not only blacklisted me, but had told other reporters for my outlet that they were no longer getting anything from the campaign, either. Fox News just complained to my editors, who told them to essentially fuck right off.

In the intervening time, I didn't do much else to ingratiate myself with Fox, but eventually, managed something resembling a working relationship in which they would at least take calls from me requesting a comment that they would never, ever give me.

In retrospect, this relationship was nothing but a benefit to them, because whenever I would contact them about a story, they were always very interested in watering my ear off the record to try and get me to change the story, but never ever gave up a quote, or anything else useful. The only reason I called at all was to be able to say that I had.

Then one day, I wrote a story that really made them unhappy. In order to protect the innocent, I must be vague in this section, but the story in question involved Fox News and, tangentially, the White House (and as I later found out, neither side was all that happy with me because I reported it accurately). 

A Fox News executive contacted one of my editors, who went on to have a great career in right-wing media, and insisted I be taken off the story and actually gave notes on my piece. When I found out, I lost my shit to another editor who wasn't made of suck, and we negotiated a compromise on the article that enabled me not to quit in a huff. 

As it happens, my Clemente-involved story also provoked some shitty chatter on the part of the administration, a fact that I learned through another outlet's unrelated FOIA request. Unlike Fox News, though, they didn't try and put the arm on me or my editors.  

The executive in that story was Michael Clemente, and what he offered that editor in exchange for selling out his own reporter was a series of self-serving and misleading quotes, and future "scoops" from Fox's toxic PR shop, like "leaked" internal emails trashing any Fox employee who dared to leave the company, even amicably.

It was that story that also led to my permanent and official blacklisting by Fox News, so much so that Fox News employees, upon meeting me for the first time, would register Keyser Soze-like recognition of my name. Even some of their most prominent personalities were threatened and read the riot act if they were caught talking to me.

Clemente was a toxic presence at Fox News, perhaps not to the degree Ailes was, but in a much pettier way.

That story had another fascinating facet that was mirrored this week, as well. Some of the stolen and leaked DNC emails featured candid discussions with and about journalists, including Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Turns out the DNC wasn't too happy with the way Joe and Mika were "reporting" about the DNC "rigging" things against Bernie Sanders, and tried to reach out to get them to get Mika to stop demanding resignations, for one. 

What got me is the way these two treated the very notion that a news subject would try to influence coverage as a scandal. Keep in mind, all Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC  were trying to do was arrange a conversation with Brzezinski.

It pissed me off because, a few years ago, the two of them actually did something much worse, going over a reporter's head to get a story changed, even though the story was accurate, and was a defense of Scarborough. 

Again, to protect the innocent, I must be vague here, but the story in question featured an argument that Scarborough just didn't want getting attention, and so he reached out to an editor and had it altered without the reporter's knowledge or consent. 

The reporter confronted Scarborough, with Brzezinski at his side, about the story at the White House, and when he brought it up, Scarborough said "Yeah, thanks for helping out with that."

"I didn't help out, they changed it without asking me," the reporter said, adding, "Next time you need a solid, try asking me instead of doing an end-run."

Now, in fairness, it wasn't Scarborough's conduct that was outrageous here, it was the editor's, but for Scarborough to express shock over the DNC's effort to actually make a factual argument to his face is ludicrous.

It's a shame that the people who are paying the most attention to these email leaks have such heavy axes to grind against Hillary, because what they really are is a fascinating window into the modern political journalism economy. We get to see the finished product, but these emails are a peek onto the factory floor, and they reveal as much about the journalists who are happy to be used as they do about the people trying to use them.