The media’s next challenge: Ignoring Trump’s Post-Presidency Tweets

You have to know Trump’s not going away when his presidency ends. With his outsized ego and craving for attention, he will continue his Twitter barrage. And why not? President Trump has already sent out 55,901 tweets, according to the tracking site Factbase, he has almost 90 million Twitter followers and the media are attracted to his tweets like iron fragments drawn to a magnet. 

As CQ Roll Call’s Jim Saksa said in a “Political Theater”podcast,  “If people were hoping for there to be a reprieve from the craziness of the last four years, I think they might be sorely mistaken.”

Actor Alec Baldwin doing an impression of President Trump tweeting on Saturday Night Live

But the media have a choice. They don’t have to give in to the temptation to continue salivating over every Trump tweet after he leaves office. He may stay on as the titular head of the Republican Party for a while, but he shouldn’t be able to command attention the way a president does. The media will not be obligated to report on his every utterance as though it’s of paramount interest to the nation.

(Addendum: Jan. 23, 2021 – With the end of Trump’s presidency, the issue is not just the media not paying attention to most Trump tweets. It’s discouraging President Biden and other government officials from blasting out tweets at all. As Kenneth S. Baer wrote in Washington Monthly, “Now that the @realDonaldTrump experience is over, it’s time to recognize that the President of the United States — or any government official — should not have his or her finger on the Tweet button. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for democracy. If there is a lesson for the incoming Biden team, it’s that when it comes to 280-character missives, just say no.)

Bill Grueskin, a faculty member at the Columbia Journalism School, argues that the media needs to kick its addiction to reporting on the train wreck Trump represents. “Trump, who craves the spotlight the way a kitten craves the sunny corner of a rug, will demand to be seen and heard,” Grueskin wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. “It will take every ounce of self-control that journalists can muster to resist his insistence on getting attention and air time.”

Yes, Trump will continue his caterwauling and will still have a large audience of acolytes after leaving office. That there are still a lot of Trump True Believers is evident from the fact that, as of Nov. 11, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. which “you could expect… to stand all but empty on Inauguration Day, like some political version of The Shining,”  was still booked solid on the days surrounding the Jan. 20 inauguration ceremony, according to the Daily Beast

Jennifer Horn, a co-founder of the anti-trump effort, The Lincoln Project, said right after the Nov. 4 election she was worried about Trump’s malign influence when he’s out of office. “I, frankly, think that Donald Trump has the potential to be more destructive out of the White House than he was in the White House,” she said in a conversation with Anne McElvoy on “The Economist Asks.”

Trump has already formed a political action committee, Save America, as a “leadership PAC” and is soliciting contributions. There’s also speculation that he may try to start a digital media channel to rival Fox News. The Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 15 that allies of President Trump have recently zeroed in on acquiring the fledgling pro-Trump cable channel Newsmax TV, part of a larger effort that could also include creating a subscription streaming service

 “Whatever our Biden coverage comes to look like, the notion that we can all just move on from Trump now is fanciful,” Jon Allsop wrote in “The Media Today,” sent out by the Columbia Journalism Review on Nov. 9, 2020. “Trump is sure to continue to command an outsized portion of our attention. He could take a monastic vow of silence and still would own the future of the Republican Party—and he’s not going to take a monastic view of silence.”

Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law at Amherst College, has predicted that Trump will “continue to be a source of chaos and division in the nation,” as well as “a heroic figure” to tens of millions of Americans, Jane Mayer noted in a New Yorker essay. 

In the face of all this, it will take sound editorial judgement and hard-headed discipline, but it is critical that media reporters and editors not allow themselves to be dragged into reporting on and amplifying what are likely to be Trump’s never-ending cascade of tweets, or, for that matter, every Facebook post, text, press release or off-the-cuff comment.

Facilitating efforts by Trump to continue to sow confusion and discord would be a disservice to all Americans, and others on the global stage as well.

Algorithm Politics: A Threat to Democracy

It’s not the Russians or fake news, the overhyped threats du jour, I’m most worried about. It’s algorithms.

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We’re all being sliced and diced like in an autopsy, analyzed and scrutinized so we can be messaged and manipulated. We are being told what we want to hear or what fits our biases. We accept lies because we’re being trained to do so.

As Howard Beale shrieked about television’s voice in the movie Network, “But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell…We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true!”

We’ve gotten so used to the manipulation we usually don’t recognize it.

While recently strolling about the Washington Square mall’s new Amazon bookstore, I noticed that some of its racks had embraced the a fortiori tactic of many online sellers, “If you like …, you’ll love ….”

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On one shelf, printed notes said that if I liked Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room”, I’ll love Paul Pen’s “Light of the Fireflies” (“which deals with some very deep and disturbing topics, including incest”), Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” (featuring “…an incredibly flawed and fragile character…”) and Wally Lamb’s “I know this to be True” (an Oprah Book Club Pick in 1998).

It looks like the store is just being helpful, but it it is really steering your purchasing decision  in a particular direction based upon your characteristics and previous behavior.

It’s like LinkedIn alerting you to job openings that might appeal to you and Twitter feeding you promoted tweets based on your profile information, mobile device location, IP address or apps on your device.

It’s like Facebook delivering information to you on topics you’ve already signaled an interest in with a bias you’ve already displayed, and cutting out contrasting views, or not showing you certain ads based on your ethnicity (as it did until recently).

In Sept. 2016, ProPublica, an independent, non-profit that produces investigative journalism, wrote about Facebook having a comprehensive set of dossiers on its more than 2 billion members.

“Every time a Facebook member likes a post, tags a photo, updates their favorite movies in their profile, posts a comment about a politician, or changes their relationship status, Facebook logs it,” ProPublica said. “When they browse the Web, Facebook collects information about pages they visit that contain Facebook sharing buttons. When they use Instagram or WhatsApp on their phone, which are both owned by Facebook, they contribute more data to Facebook’s dossier.”

And in case that wasn’t enough, ProPublica said, Facebook also buys data about users’ mortgages, car ownership and shopping habits. Talk about invasive.

In a TED Talk, Eli Pariser, Moveon.org’s Board President, called this the “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.”

It’s like Breitbart and The Daily Beast satisfying their conservative and progressive audiences with red meat, allowing each group to retreat to what University of Wisconsin Journalism Prof. James Baughman has called “safe harbors”.

Algorythms are being used to personalize all your communications, constantly reaffirming and constraining your current perspectives, establishing and solidifying your opinion silos. As they get more sophisticated and widely used algorithms are creating what Pariser calls your “filter bubble”, accentuating rifts and perverting our democratic system.

When you log on to Facebook, an algorithm takes into account countless variables to predict what you want to see. Facebook also uses algorithms to categorize your political bent, taking into account your full range of interactions, including the pages you like and the political leanings of people who like the same pages you do.

If you want to know how Facebook categorizes you, just go to facebook.com/ads/preferences. Under the “Interests” header, click the “Lifestyle and Culture” tab. You may have to click on “More” to find it. Then look for a box titled “US Politics.” In parentheses, it will describe how Facebook has categorized you, such as liberal, moderate or conservative.

This and other information is used by opinion influencers to target you. Among those influencers are media of all stripes and politicians of all persuasions.

Politicians have long sought to appeal to different segments of voters with targeted messaging and carefully constructed personas, but until recently the process has been fairly rudimentary.

The image-making tactics described in Joe McGinnis’ groundbreaking book “The Selling of the President” about marketing Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race, came as a shocking surprise to a naive general public back then.

But the tactics that were pathbreaking almost 50 years ago are now old hat. They’ve been superseded by once unimaginable data collection and analysis and unforeseen content delivery systems.

Algorithm advocates are adamant that what’s being done is good for you. “Humans are facing an increasing number of choices in every aspect of their lives,” Netflix’s VP of Product Innovation Carlos A. Gomez-Uribe and Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt wrote in a co-published paper last year. “We are convinced that the field of recommender systems will continue to play a pivotal role in using the wealth of data now available to make these choices manageable, effectively guiding people to the truly best few options for them to be evaluated, resulting in better decisions.”

Gomez-Uribe and Hunt argued that Netflix’ impressive system, which breaks down films into over 75,000 hyper-specific sub-genres and uses those, and your past behavior, to make recommendations, is obviously a great thing because 80% of hours streamed at Netflix end up being of recommended films.

But Issie Lapowsky, at Wired, is less sanguine about the implications of algorithms, arguing that there’s a dark side to their use. “This (2016) election has shown us how the same platforms that put a world of facts and information at our fingertips can just as easily be used to undermine basic truths,” she wrote on Nov. 7.

In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil argued that algorithms pose as neutral tools, but too often exploit people and distort the truth, contributing to the erosion of democracy.

“The social network (i.e. Facebook) may feel like a modern town square, but thanks to its tangle of algorithms, it’s nothing like the public forums of the past,” she said. “The company determines, according to its interests and those of its shareholders, what we see and learn on its social network. The result has been a loss of focus on critical national issues, an erosion of civil disagreement, and a threat to democracy itself.”

Algorithms cause us to “contribute to our own miseducation”, reinforcing echo chambers and making us more partisan, O’Neil said.  “Thanks in part to filtering and personalization… our information has become deeply unbalanced, skewed, and has lost its mooring.”

The increasing sophistication of data gathering and analysis reflected in algorithms is also allowing politicians to shape shift for almost each individual voter. A politician used to be one person, or maybe two if you didn’t like him. It used to be that a presidential candidate delivered similar personas and key messages to  all audiences. If he didn’t, his duplicity was exposed. Today, multiple personas and positions are carefully constructed  and messages are carefully targeted so they can be delivered to tiny slices of the electorate, often with no broader public awareness.

Micro-messaging allows specific online messages to be delivered to a certain group, such as just to attendees of the 2016 National Right to Life Convention at the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport  in Herndon, VA, or even to two members of a family in the same house with different views.

Often the dissection of voters allows a message to be massaged such that the recipient on social media or other channels believes she and the politician are in agreement, even if that’s not the case.  For example, an anti-union Congresswoman might tell a same-minded constituent of by her support for a right-to-work bill, while telling a union supporter about her vote for higher infrastructure spending that tends to reward unions.

Stanford Prof. Neil Malhotra’s research led him to suspect that this kind of  hypocrisy helps explain how members of Congress can get away with voting in a highly partisan or polarized way when their constituents are actually much more moderate.

“These people are good strategic communicators who can potentially take very extreme positions that are out of step with their constituents but then massage them with language,” Malhotra said in a Stanford Business article.

Of course, targeting voters is hardly a new thing; politicians have been doing it forever. But now the databases are substantially more comprehensive, sometimes scarily so, the messaging vehicles, such as social media, can be much more individualized and the political elite are fully embracing the new technology.

“Algorithms show us what we like, not what is ‘right’ ”, said Sebastian Buckup on Quartz. “As a result, they increase ideological segregation rather than creating a digital agora. Influencers no longer waste their time with facts…Rather than seeking truth, the age of data is creating its own.”

That new truth will put more power in the hands of manipulators who won’t have our best interests at heart.

Asked, “How did you go bankrupt?”, Ernest Hemingway replied, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

That’s how our democracy will collapse, too, if algorithmic tools aren’t tamed to function in our best interest.

 

Troubling questions: media donations to the Clinton Foundation

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While listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting the other day I heard an interviewer mention that Public Radio International (PRI) had given money to the Clinton Foundation.

A review of the Clinton Foundation’s records reveals that PRI has, in fact, donated $10,000 – $25,000 to the Foundation. The purpose of the donation is not given.

Talk about bizarre. A major non-profit media organization that relies on donations itself, turns right around and gives some of its limited resources to another non-profit, the Clinton Foundation.

I asked PRI to explain, but they didn’t respond.

In the process of researching the issue, I learned something even more disturbing. PRI is one of dozens of media organizations that have donated to the Clinton Foundation, creating or maintaining questionable symbiotic relationships.

One of the other media donors is Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a non-profit provider of programs to public television stations that relies on donations itself.

Media, which harp on their commitment to ethical behavior, clearly have a problem here. How can they not see it?

Last week the Clinton Foundation said it won’t accept donations from corporations or foreign entities if Hillary Clinton is elected president. A halt to accepting media donations should be adopted, too.

Other media-related donors to the Clinton Foundation include:

$1,000,000-$5,000,000

 Carlos Slim, Telecom magnate and largest shareholder of The New York Times Company

 James Murdoch, Chief Operating Officer of 21st Century Fox

 Newsman Media, Florida-based conservative media network

 Thomson Reuters, Reuters news service owner

 

$500,000-$1,000,000

 Google

 News Corporation Foundation

 

$250,000-$500,000

 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Publisher

 Richard Mellon Scaife, Owner of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

 

$100,000-$250,000

 Bloomberg Philanthropies

 Howard Stringer, Former CBS, CBS News and Sony executive

 Intermountain West Communications Company, Local television affiliate owner (formerly Sunbelt Communications)

 

$50,000-$100,000

 Bloomberg L.P.

 Discovery Communications Inc.

 Mort Zuckerman, Owner of New York Daily News and U.S. News & World Report

 Time Warner Inc., Owner of CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting

George Stephanopoulos, Communications director and senior adviser for policy and strategy to President Clinton

 

$25,000-$50,000

 AOL

 HBO

 Hollywood Foreign Press Association

 Viacom

 

$10,000-$25,000

 Knight Foundation

Turner Broadcasting, Parent company of CNN

 Twitter

 

$5,000-$10,000

 Comcast, Parent company of NBCUniversal

 NBC Universal, Parent company of NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC

 Public Broadcasting Service

 

$1,000-$5,000

 Robert Allbritton, Owner of POLITICO

 

$250-$1,000

 AOL Huffington Post Media Group

 Hearst Corporation

 Judy Woodruff, PBS Newshour co-anchor and managing editor

 The Washington Post Company