The temptation to try to create campaign news during the slow summer months is one that journalists ought to resist. If not, they could end up looking like CNBC did on Tuesday when the business news channel lost its bearings (again) and invited disgraced birther Donald Trump on to weave his tired conspiracies about the president's supposedly hidden past. Worse, CNBC.com then wrote up Trump's appearance while touting as news a comically awful right-wing fantasy published this week about Obama's years at Columbia University.
Appearing on CNBC's "Squawk Box," Trump was pushing what he claimed to be a brilliant campaign maneuver for the Romney campaign, which finds itself under pressure to release the candidate's tax records, as all presidential candidates have done in recent years. According to Trump, Romney should finally release years of his tax returns, but only if Obama released his college transcripts.
What Trump apparently doesn't understand, and what nobody on CNBC bothered to point out, is that as a rule presidential nominees do release extensive tax returns, and as a rule they do not release their college transcripts. (Romney hasn't.) Trumps brilliant dare to the Obama campaign doesn't make any sense because tax returns and college records have never been treated similarly by campaigns from either party.
CNBC's Trump troubles were compounded online with a report that soft-peddled Trump's birther past, while claiming serious new questions have been raised about Obama's time at Columbia.
In his most recent column, the New York Times' Ross Douthat repeated a common media charge about what a harsh campaign President Obama is running this year. Dubbing the president "Mr. Negative," Douthat bemoaned what he saw as Obama's nasty Nixonian streak and a campaign that Douthat claims "started out negative and has escalated to frank character assassination."
This kind of dire rhetoric has become quite common among Beltway pundits and reporters, along with right-wing commentators. Collectively, they have formed a tight-knit narrative about what an almost shockingly negative campaign Obama is running, and how the harsh tone represents the polar opposite of Obama's feel-good run in 2008.
The media chatter really has become deafening. A New York Times news report last month emphasized how both campaigns have gone "relentlessly negative," while a Miami Herald column trumpeted Obama's "seek and destroy" campaign style, built around a "negative onslaught" targeting Romney. (The Herald piece suggested Obama was "doing the same" thing to Romney that the Swift Boat Veterans had done to John Kerry in 2004.) Meanwhile, The Atlantic dubbed Obama's run a "nasty" and "bare knuckle" campaign fueled by "brutal" tactics.
In fact, when the Romney campaign made an ad complaining about how negative Obama's re-election run has been, it cobbled together on-air quotes from CBS's Bob Schieffer, Time's Mark Halperin and the New York Times' David Brooks, all of whom have gone on TV lamenting the tone of Obama's campaign.
But is the claim accurate? Is the Democrat really running some sort of guttural, ruthlessly negative campaign? Is it far and way more negative than his opponent's effort? And is the tone of Obama's 2012 campaign completely different from his 2008 run for election, as the press insists?
No, no, no, and no.
Republican politicians running for office and dinging the so-called liberal media for being unfair isn't considered news. In fact it's expected. But Romney's comments were noteworthy because of the larger conspiratorial dots he tried to connect. The Republican didn't simply portray the press as prejudiced, he suggested Beltway reporters and pundits are working in collusion to help the Obama administration during the campaign [emphasis added]:
And I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran. They'll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.
That's significant because it indicates how deeply into the right-media bubble the Romney campaign has gone and how it operates alongside discredited far-right bloggers who insist reporters are really hired hit men obediently serving the Obama White House. Note that Romney clearly insinuates members of the press actively try to "divert" voters' attention from Obama's failures, and that's why they covered his stumbles in Europe.
It's as if confused Breitbart bloggers are now running the Romney campaign:
Today marks the two-week anniversary of Fox News' decision to launch campaign attack on President Obama over comments he made at a Roanoke, VA., campaign stop. Speaking to supporters for nearly an hour on July 13, the president touched on the topic of small business success and the collective forces that shape it, such as the U.S. infrastructure. Since then, Fox has led a right-wing charge claiming Obama insulted small businessmen and women by telling them of their accomplishments, "you didn't build that." (He was clearly referring to infrastructure.)
The Wall Street Journal recently published a newsroom review of how Obama's "build that" comment became such a big deal [emphasis added]:
<That was on Friday, July 13. Over the following weekend, state GOP communicators got calls from small-business owners grousing about the president's words, said Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer. By last Monday, what had been the germ of an idea in the brains of Mr. Spicer and other strategists grew into a full-court press.>
So according to the Journal's reporting, the idea of focusing on Obama's July 13 "build that" comments quickly took root inside the RNC, after officials were prompted by the spontaneous, angry reaction from businessmen. Then ten days later, the comment was at the center of a "full-court," "multi-pronged" GOP attack campaign, complete with commercials and two dozen staged rallies.
But what did Rupert Murdoch's Journal conveniently leave out of its tick-tock report on how the "build that" controversy unfolded? The indisputable fact that Rupert Murdoch Fox News promoted the whole story, and that if it weren't for Fox there would be no "build that" campaign for the GOP to run on Romney's behalf. And if it weren't for Fox and its purposefully dishonest promotion of the "build that" quote, the story would not be in play two weeks later.
Fact: The "build that" tale was sponsored by Fox News, which has replaced the RNC as the launching pad for campaign attacks ads. After the story was bubbling on conservatives blogs, it was Fox that helped take Obama's "wildly out of context" comments and turn them into a national story. And it was Fox that obsessively spent hours of programming time spread out over two weeks hyping the falsehood that Obama said business owners didn't build their success.
This was not a supposed "gaffe" Obama made on the campaign trail, which Fox News fixated on for weeks in an effort to embarrass the president. Instead, Obama made straight-forward comments about business success and the importance of outside influences such as teachers as well as government-created infrastructure, and Fox decided to help splice up the comments, strip them of context and pretend Obama said something else; a fictitious claim the Romney camp then repeated and turned into an attack campaign.
The chronology is critical in terms of understanding the unprecedented role a "news" channel is playing in this year's general election campaign: It's manufacturing campaign ads for the GOP. That is what the actual tick-tock review of the "build that" comment looks like. And that's the startling tale serious campaign journalists ought to be telling.
Instead, from Murdoch's Journal newsroom, we're told Fox News played no part in rolling out the GOP's "build that" attack.
Writing for The Atlantic yesterday, Fred Campbell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute made perhaps the most nonsensical anti-net neutrality argument I've ever seen: that the passage of the FCC's Open Internet Rule set us down a slippery regulatory slope that led to the wildly unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA:
The unintended consequences of the FCC's new regulatory approach appeared swiftly. By signaling the end of the bipartisan agreement against Internet regulation, the FCC's order opened the floodgates for additional government interference. New legislative and regulatory initiatives to reign in the free market for Internet services began popping up everywhere.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced in late 2011, is one of these new initiatives and the reason Issa became so engaged in Internet policy. Ironically, the same progressives that advocated for net neutrality rules were among the most vociferous opponents of SOPA, but this time, they weren't alone. Conservatives and centrists joined hands with progressives to oppose SOPA in a redux of the earlier bipartisan agreement opposing Internet regulation. This bipartisan opposition gave the anti-SOPA movement the kind of mainstream momentum that net neutrality always lacked, which made it appear that, once again, we could unite in our opposition to government interference in the Internet.
Let's pick this apart piece-by-piece, shall we?
Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz is being raked over the coals by countless tech writers, experts, and his own sources for a piece he wrote this week arguing that the government wasn't involved in the creation of the internet. (It was, according to the people who actually helped create the internet.) Though Crovitz's arguments have dissolved under scrutiny, the column's central premise has predictably been adopted by conservatives that either don't know or don't care that it is wildly wrong. First it was Rush Limbaugh, then Fox News, and now Karl Rove.
Rove appeared on Fox & Friends this morning to attack President Obama with lies and distortions, thus fulfilling the requirements of his dual-role as a Fox News political analyst and head of a GOP Super PAC. According to Rove, Obama displayed "hostility to private enterprise" by crediting government research for the creation of the internet. Rove declared Obama "wrong" on the history, citing Crovitz's "brilliant" WSJ column as evidence:
It's been four days now since the Wall Street Journal published Gordon Crovitz's column arguing that the government was not involved in the creation of the Internet. In that time, many of the sources Crovitz cited in that column -- the people who worked with the government to create the Internet or later reported on that effort -- have stated flatly that Crovitz's assertion was wrong. But thus far there's been nary a peep from the paper or from Crovitz. So what will it take for Crovitz and the Journal to correct, or at least acknowledge, the column's inaccuracies?
Let's run down the people Crovitz cited, and their subsequent reactions to his thesis.
If the government didn't invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet's backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.
I would happily fertilize my tomatoes with Crovitz' assertion.
Salon's Alex Pareene made a good observation yesterday about the future of Wall Street Journal opinion-slinger Gordon Crovitz's 100-percent incorrect claim that government was not involved in the creation of the internet:
I am very confident that "The Government Had Nothing To Do With Inventing The Internet That Is a Liberal Lie" will become one of those wonderful myths that all true-believer conservatives subscribe to, like "FDR and the New Deal made the Depression worse" and "Reagan Was a Good President."
It's true; the conservative canon is littered with verifiably false claims masquerading as unshakeable truths -- in some cases, as foundational principles. Other examples include "global warming is a hoax" and "tax cuts increase revenue." Most of them have been around for so long that their origins are murky, but we have the benefit of being able to observe this particular untruth move through the conservative ecosystem. It's sort of like watching evolution happen! (If evolution were real and not another hoax, that is.)
Breitbart.com contributor Seton Motley is one of the right's loudest critics of net neutrality -- or, at least, what he thinks is net neutrality. He wrote a piece yesterday excoriating various and sundry "leftists" (the word "leftist" is used 16 times throughout) who want to use net neutrality to "make it as difficult as possible for continued private Internet investment" and "leave government as the nation's sole Internet provider."
That certainly sounds terrible. It also bears zero resemblance to the regulatory structure put in place by the FCC's Open Internet order, which established net neutrality policies for internet service providers. The regulations prevent ISPs from acting as gatekeepers, restricting consumer access to legal online content. They grant the government none of the draconian powers Motley envisions.
Instead of grappling with the actual regulatory policy, Motley's warnings of the net neutrality apocalypse are based on this 2009 quote from Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney:
At the moment, the battle over network neutrality is not to completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies. We are not at that point yet. But the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.
Shadowboxing with a single three-years-stale quote from an academic is far, far easier than delving into complicated policy -- which is probably why Motley has made a habit of doing it. This quote from McChesney has served a long, distinguished career as Motley's net neutrality bop bag.
News today that eight of Rupert Murdoch former editors and reporters have been charged with phone hacking crimes, coupled with Murdoch's recent resignation from directorship of several News Corp. companies that publish his British newspapers, marks the latest signs that the mogul's once-powerful place among British media and political elite has evaporated to almost nothing. Once crowned as an all-powerful kingmaker whom prime ministers courted and enemies feared, Murdoch, in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and the sea of broadening criminal investigations, remains a man besieged by bad news.
With each passing week and month evidence has continued to mount suggesting Murdoch's media properties were run at times as criminal enterprises, with formal charges now made that more than 600 people had their voice mails hacked by Murdoch employees. Earlier this year, a Parliamentary report found Murdoch "not fit" to lead a major international company.
A recent statement from News Corp. headquarters insisted Murdoch's resignation from companies that publish The Sun tabloid as well as The Times and The Sunday Times, represented "routine corporate housekeeping," pursued in the wake of the recent decision to break News Corp. into two separate companies. But given the grievous damage done to Murdoch's standing in Britain over the last 13 months, since the long-simmering phone hacking scandal exploded into full view, the resignation can be seen as another forced withdrawal (or an "imperial retreat") by Murdoch from British politics and media.
For decades Murdoch stood as the most influential newspaperman in Britain, where he controlled 30 percent of the press. He used his dailies to viciously attack his blacklist of enemies (while reporters spied on them), and to reward his friends.
Yet at the same time Murdoch is forced to withdrawal from Britain's political life, his profile is rapidly rising in the United States thanks to the unprecedented role News Corp's Fox News is playing this election cycle as it openly, and forcefully, campaigns against President Obama. The dichotomy between Murdoch's standing in Britain and America is striking, for rarely has a media mogul had his fortunes sink so low on one continent, while simultaneously rise so high on another.
A July 24 Reuters article reported that Rebekah Brooks, a former executive in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., will be charged with "phone-hacking offenses" along with former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.
Brooks was the former CEO of News Corp.'s British newspaper division, News International, the group in charge of News of the World when the newspaper became the center of a scandal involving phone hacking.
From Reuters, via Huffington Post:
Prime Minister David Cameron's ex-media chief and Rupert Murdoch's former UK newspaper boss are to be charged with phone-hacking offences in the most significant development in a scandal that has rocked Britain's establishment.
Prosecutors said on Tuesday Andy Coulson, who was Cameron's communications chief from 2007 until January 2011, and Rebekah Brooks, who was courted by a succession of prime ministers including Cameron in her role as Murdoch's UK newspaper chief, would be charged with offences linked to the hacking.
The alleged offences were committed when both were editor of the News of the World newspaper, the Sunday tabloid which Murdoch was forced to close last July amid public revulsion at the phone-hacking revelations.
Six other senior former News of the World journalists and staff are also to be charged. The maximum sentence for the phone-hacking charges is two years in prison and/or a fine.
The Wall Street Journal's Gordon Crovitz jumped on the "you didn't build that" distortion bandwagon yesterday, attacking President Obama for citing the "government research" that "created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet." To rebut the president, Crovitz offered a lengthy response to a point Obama never made, made a wealth of assertions that (according to his own sources) were wrong, and in the end actually ended up proving the point the president did make: that government-funded projects contribute to success in private enterprise.
First, let's take a look at what Obama said:
OBAMA: If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
Now here's Crovitz's take on Obama's (selectively edited) comments:
A telling moment in the presidential race came recently when Barack Obama said: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." He justified elevating bureaucrats over entrepreneurs by referring to bridges and roads, adding: "The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet."
It's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens--and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way.
It's a myth! And had Obama said that "the government launched the Internet," he would have been guilty of propagating that myth. Fortunately, he didn't say that. Nonetheless, Crovitz took it upon himself to correct the president on who "invented" the internet -- Xerox, not the government:
In Thursday's Wall Street Journal news section, Rupert Murdoch's national newspaper reported American Crossroads, the mega, GOP-friendly super PAC, was coming to the aid of Mitt Romney and had purchased nearly $9 million in campaign ads designed to answer attacks about Romney's career at Bain Capital.
The ad buy was newsworthy because it was the first time commercials from American Crossroads had explicitly defended Romney by name (rather than only attack Obama), and they signaled a deepening, hands-on commitment from the group to elect the Republican's presumptive candidate.
In the ninth paragraph, the Journal article noted the super PAC "was founded with the help of Bush White House aide, Karl Rove."
What was missing from the Journal article? The fact that, like the WSJ reporters who wrote the story, Rove also collects a Journal paycheck from Rupert Murdoch. That's because the Wall Street Journal employs a dedicated Republican fundraiser as one of its chief political columnists. I'm pretty sure we've never seen anything like this at a major American newspaper before. (A partisan, multi-million dollar fundraiser as an opinion writer??) And no, you don't have to be the Dean at the Columbia School of Journalism to see the obvious conflicts in play.
Indeed, eleven pages away from the American Crossroads story in the Journal's Thursday print edition was Karl Rove latest column. And like so many Rove columns the Journal has published since he joined the team, it focused on the supposed chronic failures of the Obama administration and/or the president's re-election campaign.
So on A4, the Journal reported about Rove's eight-figure effort to try to debunk Obama campaign attacks about Romney's Bain tenure, and on A15 the Journal published Rove's column, which tried to debunk Obama campaign attacks about Romney 's Bain tenure. And no, the Journal news article never mentioned that moneyman Karl Rove is on the Journal payroll as a columnist.
This is just abysmal journalism in terms of transparency and full disclosure. It's true that Fox News plays dumb about Fox contributor Rove's dual role all the time. But you'd hope the once-mighty Journal wouldn't play by Fox's loose (non-existent?) ethical standards.
Unfortunately, the fiasco represents the predictable, unsightly outcome when Rupert Murdoch buys a newspaper and starts molding it in his image. It's also the predictably messy outcome when a newspaper makes the inexplicable decision to hire a political fundraiser as a columnist, and then fails to acknowledge that to readers.
AT&T may be on the brink of achieving the improbable. The mobile carrier is reportedly considering charging subscribers extra to use Apple's FaceTime video chat app on their mobile phones. Were they to actually do so, they'd likely be in violation of the FCC's net neutrality rules for mobile broadband -- a remarkable feat, given how wildly permissive those rules are.
With regard to net neutrality, the FCC divides broadband into two categories: fixed and mobile. The rules for fixed broadband are meant to prevent internet providers from blocking or favoring certain types of traffic on their networks, but ISPs are already exploiting loopholes in the regulations to favor their own content. But when it came to mobile broadband, the FCC took a more laissez-faire approach, arguing that it needs to "better understand how the mobile broadband market is developing before determining whether adjustments to this framework are necessary."
However, one thing the FCC did prohibit is the blocking of video chat and voice-over-IP apps that compete with mobile carriers' telephone service:
A person engaged in the provision of mobile broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not block consumers from accessing lawful websites, subject to reasonable network management; nor shall such person block applications that compete with the provider's voice or video telephony services, subject to reasonable network management.
According to TechCrunch, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson isn't denying rumors -- first reported by the Apple-watchers at 9toMac -- that they're considering charging to use FaceTime, saying only that "it's too early to talk about pricing." Preventing subscribers from using Apple's FaceTime (unless they pay AT&T) would certainly seem to run counter to the net neutrality rules, and consumer advocacy groups like Public Knowledge are letting AT&T know as much. "If AT&T intends to charge users an extra fee to use FaceTime over cellular networks, this would be a clear violation of the FCC's open Internet rules," says PK's Harold Feld.
So why would AT&T stumble into one of the vanishingly few violations of the net neutrality rule? The allure of the double-dip.
There is nothing mobile carriers would love more than the freedom to charge twice for the same data. When you sign up with AT&T, you're allotted a fixed amount of data per month. Even if you don't use it, you've already paid for it. If AT&T starts charging to use FaceTime, it will have succeeded in getting you to pay to use the data you've already paid for. The flip side to this scheme is AT&T's other scheme -- verified to be in the works -- to charge app developers for the data their subscribers use, thus charging content providers for access to consumers and vice-versa. That's a more promising avenue for AT&T, as there doesn't seem to be anything in the net neutrality rules to prevent it.
And it would screw over consumers, as would the rumored FaceTime double-dip, which seems increasingly to be the point.
Incoming New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan says she believes that "newspapers must be truth vigilantes" and that such a focus is "a clear part of our mission."
Sullivan, whose appointment to the position was announced Monday, will take over the post from current public editor Arthur Brisbane on Sept. 1, 2012.
Brisbane drew criticism for a January 12 report in which he posed the question, "Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" In his piece, he said he was "looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about." As Adam Clark Estes observed at The Atlantic Wire, "The immediate answer, everyone we follow [on Twitter] seemed to agree, was a resounding YES."
In a follow-up post, Brisbane said he had been misunderstood, and that his "inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut 'facts' that are offered by newsmakers when those 'facts' are in question." He added, "I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one." Responding to his original post, Times executive editor Jill Abramson wrote that "[t]he kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists" and that "[w]e do it every day, in a variety of ways."
In an interview with Media Matters, Sullivan, currently editor of The Buffalo News, said she agrees with the contention that newspapers must challenge facts presented by sources or news subjects if they are found to be in dispute, a position she said put her in step with both her predecessor and Abramson.
"I think that possibly what came out of that was that we all know and Arthur Brisbane knows and Jill Abramson knows and every one of us knows that newspapers must be truth vigilantes and there never really was any question about that I don't think," she said Monday. "Certainly that's a value that we all share and that's not really in question. It's a clear part of our mission, to ferret out the truth. What else are we here for?"
Asked Monday if accepting answers from subjects and sources at face value is not enough, Sullivan added:
"For any newspaper, for any news organization, I don't think it's nearly enough, we have to be much more searching. I think that challenging facts and getting to the bottom of statements is central to the mission of journalism. To me, it's a very clear cut kind of thing."
Sullivan, 55, comes to the Times post after 13 years as editor of The Buffalo News and an employee of that paper since 1980.
On how she plans to approach the job -- and perhaps differently from her four predecessors -- Sullivan said, "I think that ... the difference is that we live in a very different era right now. It has changed a whole lot in just the past couple of years."
"We are so immersed in digital culture and the Public Editor's role needs to respond to that. I see this as a way of aggregating the comment and criticism and discussion that's out there into a probably daily or close to daily blog, getting reader comment going in a real time basis and have a true sort of ongoing online conversation with the Times readers about the New York Times," she added.