Posts Tagged ‘media’

BuzzFeed Blow-Out: The Media’s ‘Gotcha!’ Hysteria is Harmful to Democracy

January 20, 2019

By lowering journalistic standards, the American press has waged an unrelenting media war against Donald Trump. Often it’s been unfair. But never mind; it sells! And we get lots of “clicks” on social media…. Everybody gets a good laugh….

The Free Press is supposed to govern itself responsibly….


Imagine that a scientist wanted to conduct an experiment to see if it’s true that blind hatred of President Trump has led Democrats and their media handmaidens to go ’round the bend and off the cliff.

Such a scientist would inject a damning — and false — media report about Trump into the political bloodstream, then observe the reactions. It wouldn’t take long.

The Gotcha! glee, the declarations of Trump’s certain impeachment for suborning perjury, reckless references to Richard Nixon, the breathless anticipation of resignation and disgrace, perhaps prison — these and other overheated reactions quickly clogged the airwaves and Internet, growing ever more bold as the day wore on and no compelling rebuttal appeared.

Then, suddenly, the scientist pulled the plug on the experiment. He had seen enough to prove the thesis: Much of America, many of its leaders and some of its most prominent institutions are indeed gripped with madness.

By Michael Goodwin

Hatred for the president has corrupted their judgments and blinded them to duty and decency. Having succumbed to prejudice and rage, they have proven themselves unworthy of public trust.

Case closed.

Sometimes, life is stranger than fiction. Friday was such a day in America. It was a shameful spectacle.

The BuzzFeed News report that special counsel Robert Mueller had corroborating evidence that Trump had instructed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a Moscow commercial project set the anti-Trump mob on fire. It was the bombshell development Dems and 90 percent of the media have dreamed of — and finally it was here. Oh, Happy Days!

Except it wasn’t true. Mueller said so in an unprecedented debunking that slammed the brakes on the celebration.

Mueller’s statement, though brief, was specific and thorough enough to rip out the guts of the report. It said: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this ­office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”

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The site’s editor and others called the statement inadequate, but that was wishful thinking. The party was over because prosecutors denied the sensational central claim of the story, that they had gathered evidence beyond doubt that Trump had committed a crime.

While BuzzFeed alone created the false report, which was based, naturally, on anonymous sources, it was not alone in revealing its desire to be rid of Trump. Much of the political class embraced the story without doubts because they wanted it to be true. Dems in Congress instantly pledged investigations.

Then there are the so-called journalists who swallowed the ­report without trying to confirm it themselves. Many touted it as the Holy Grail while inserting the ridiculous phrase, “if it’s true.”

Not so long ago, no respected journalist or news organization would go public with something unless they had enough evidence to reach the conclusion it was true. The bigger the story, the higher the threshold of necessary evidence.

Not Friday. Then the biggest possible story was presented with the least possible evidence. “If it’s true” is an admission of malpractice.

To use it as a shield while reporting an accusation of massive significance violates every conceivable standard. Real journalists do not report something, then caution that it may not be true.

You certainly don’t accuse the president, or anyone else, of a crime unless you are persuaded by evidence it is true.

I have my doubts the media will do the necessary soul searching. As I have argued repeatedly since 2016, too many outlets are too invested in getting the scoop that brings down the president they love to hate. They have trashed their standards, and Friday was the inevitable result.

But there is another possible silver lining emerging from the dark day, and I have more hope this one will make a difference. It is it a recognition that the endless Mueller probe has become a problem of its own making.

It is not healthy that a prosecutor has become like a divine oracle, with the nation’s mood hanging on first his silence, then his statement. The Wizard of Mueller has no place in our democracy.

Such power is too easily abused, and Mueller, whatever his personal and professional virtues, has gotten too big for America’s good.

Fortunately, he will soon have a real and worthy boss. William Barr is almost certain to be the new attorney general, ending a reign of error that began with the hapless Jeff Sessions and continued with his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.

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William Barr

Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe because he was a prominent Trump campaign supporter is the bane of the Trump presidency. Rosenstein, for reasons known only to himself and perhaps Mueller, panicked when Trump fired James Comey, the corrupt FBI boss, and decided to appoint a special counsel.

Yet Rosenstein wrote a memo justifying the Comey firing and participated in conversations about it, facts that gave him more conflicts than Sessions ever had. Equally troubling, Rosenstein, a career mid-level prosecutor, proved incapable of properly supervising Mueller, whose reputation and gravitas far exceeded that of his putative boss.

As a result, Mueller has operated without restraint or guidance, with abuses and conflicts of interest on his team swept aside in what too often looks like a determination to knock off a duly elected president.

Barr, I believe, will be the antidote to this destructive situation. He is, as I wrote last week, “a respected adult” who can tame the waters in the Justice Department and get to the bottom of the anti-Trump cabal that has robbed the FBI of its reputation for fair play.

And he will not be a pushover for anyone. Barr, who was AG under the first President Bush, has a first-rate legal mind and a mature self-confidence born of experience, both of which he demonstrated at his confirmation hearings.

“I have a very good life, I love it,” he said in response to a question about his independence, “but I also want to help in this circumstance. I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong by anybody, whether it be editorial boards, the Congress or the president. I’m going to do what I think is right.”

The comments were widely interpreted as a warning to the president, and they were in some sense. But they were also a warning to anyone in Washington who would abuse power and corrupt key institutions for political purposes, whether in the media, Congress or the FBI.

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Robert Mueller

That includes the special counsel. Mueller is not exempt from the laws of common sense and fairness. When it comes to Trump, he must fish or cut bait.

After nearly two years of investigating, on top of a 10-month FBI probe he inherited, Mueller needs to show his cards. The country cannot continue to thrash about with uncertainty over events that took place three years ago. The void is being filled with partisan trash and dangerous discord.

As Friday proved, America needs clarity and finality, and it needs them now.


Democracy depends on a free press — But the Free Press is supposed to govern itself responsibly

In the summer of 1787, the nation’s most influential lawyers, generals and politicians gathered in Philadelphia with a single purpose: To create a government that was ruled by the people instead of one that ruled them.

The first words of the Constitution underscored this principle: “We, the people, of the United States of America . . .”

To protect the people’s power, our Founding Fathers carefully divided the government into three branches. With this system, no one person or governmental branch could ever rule with absolute authority.

The checks and balances provide a framework for the government. However, the cornerstone of our democracy is the unique privilege and responsibility of every citizen to be engaged through voting, public offices, representation in Congress and myriad other ways.

For a society to be responsible and powerful, it must be informed. Our free press, protected by the first constitutional amendment, plays a critical role in ensuring that every American has constant access to important and trustworthy news.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

As he emphasized, this free flow of information to the public is essential to preserving our American democracy. In addition to educating and reporting, the press serves as the public’s independent watchdog, charged with keeping governments, businesses and other organizations in check.

What other institution has the power to talk to key leaders, inspire social change and uncover corruption, while analyzing and providing context for major global events? Thanks to diligent reporting, citizens are empowered to take a stance on critical issues, enact change and demand the best from their leaders.

Recent headlines have demonstrated that we can’t take the power of the press for granted. After it was revealed this summer that the government secretly obtained AP phone records and the email content of Fox News reporter James Rosen, while also ruling that New York Times reporter James Risen must disclose his confidential sources, it became clear that confidential sources and the integrity of the newsgathering process must also be specifically protected.

Without a free press that can defend its sources, American democracy will suffer. The Newspaper Association of America applauded the vote last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve the Free Flow of Information Act for vote in the Senate. This bill represents a critical step in preserving the public’s right to know while still ensuring effective law enforcement.

While we celebrate this, we know that news organizations and the government itself comprise only a piece of the equation. To have a strong democracy and educated citizenry, it is up to you to take advantage of your opportunities to be engaged. It is up to you to stay informed by reading newspapers, visiting their websites or accessing their news apps, and up to you to show up at the polls on Nov. 5.

The Constitution was ratified on Sept. 17, a day that we continue to commemorate every year as the birth of our uniquely American government. There is no better way to honor our Constitution and our founding fathers than by exercising our individual right to be informed.


Free Speech in American Democracy

Speech is not entirely free in Europe. There are certain views you are prohibited from publicly expressing there, and they seem to have well-functioning democracies.

Why must we hold to such an absolutist view on free speech? Are we not giving aid and comfort to the opponents of the republic by allowing them to utter such vile words? Is it not wiser to leaven the First Amendment with a prudent disregard for the fringes?

If we understand free speech in purely liberal terms — i.e. as a self-evident right — then these questions seem to have merit. After all, we restrict other rights for the sake of the public welfare. Most of them can be taken away, so long as it is done so with “due process.” And the process that is due, in many respects, is conditioned by the political, social, and economic climate of the day. Why not speech?

But the First Amendment is not merely an expression of liberal freedom, but of republican freedom as well. The liberal conception of liberty defines it as absence of government interference from your life — or, in its 20th-century evolution, liberty means that the government provides for a certain standard of living. But the republican notion of liberty is different. A free republic is one in which people are governed by laws that they themselves have a hand in making. From this perspective, freedom of speech needs to remain nearly absolute.

To appreciate this, consider the efforts of the man most responsible for the Bill of Rights, James Madison.

Madison was not so much the author of the Bill of Rights, but its editor. He was initially opposed to the project; the structure of the Constitution offered sufficient protection for civil liberty, he thought, and he feared that an enumeration of rights would imply a limitation to them. But the ratifying conventions in many states had approved the Constitution, with suggested revisions. Madison, who viewed these conventions as tribunes of the popular will, took their recommendations seriously. As George Washington’s de facto prime minister during the first session of the First Congress, he refined the wide array of proposals into what ultimately became the Bill of Rights.

In The Federalist Papers, Madison can come across as deeply suspicious of popular government. In Federalist No. 10 he bemoaned the “violence of faction” and sought to design a government that can corral the inherently selfish passions of humanity. In Federalist No. 51, he added checks and balances as “auxiliary precautions” to further thwart misrule.

Yet this is only one side of the Madisonian coin. Admittedly, he wanted to slow the tempo of government down to a crawl, to prevent fractious majorities from railroading minority rights and undermining the public welfare. But he also hoped to promote a robust intercourse of sentiments, so that — in due course — public opinion would cohere around principles of justice and the general welfare. Government had to move slowly and cautiously, but public discourse should be vigorous and unfettered.

“Public opinion,” he wrote in the National Gazette, in December 1791, “sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” But in a large republic such as the United States, it is “less easy to be ascertained, and . . . less difficult to be counterfeited.” It was thus key, he argued, to facilitate “a general intercourse of sentiments,” which included roads and commerce, as well as “a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people.”

In Madison’s view, a free republic depends ultimately upon public opinion. A Constitution could divide power this way and that, but in the end it is the people, and only the people, who rule. And for the people to rule wisely, they have to be able to communicate with one another — freely, without fear of reprisal. Thus, freedom of speech and press were not, for Madison, merely God-given rights. They were preconditions for self-government.

Conversely, Madison believed that those who sought to restrict speech revealed themselves to be opponents of republicanism. They wished to prevent public opinion from cohering, thus making it easier to counterfeit. This is why Madison and Thomas Jefferson — Jefferson himself was a staunch republican — reacted so strongly to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which restricted immigration and made it a crime to print “libelous” comments about government officers. Madison and Jefferson’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions called for state intervention to correct the abuses of the government (for Madison this implied “interposition,” but for Jefferson it could include “nullification”). Decades later, their resolves would be repurposed for the cause of secession, but they were actually an effort to prevent the Federalist party under John Adams from undermining the very basis of the national republic itself.

Our First Amendment freedoms give us the right to think what we like and say what we please. And if we the people are to govern ourselves, we must have these rights, even if they are misused by a minority.

Madison’s tenure as president — 1809 to 1817 — has come in for a good bit of criticism over the years. It was, in many respects, an unspectacular administration, in no small part because of the disappointments of the War of 1812. But it is easy to overlook that although Madison was managing a relatively unpopular and difficult conflict, he did not sanction the abridgement of civil liberties. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt — all of whom tend to score higher in historical rankings — did not show such restraint. This speaks well of Madison’s commitment to the importance of free speech.

None of this means that we should excuse the boorish and ignorant among us, those who seek to incite popular unrest for the sake of their small-minded prejudices. Instead, Madison’s commitment to free speech should serve as a reminder that, while people say things that we might find personally offensive, we should never wish the state to squash their right to do so. Our First Amendment freedoms combined — freedom of religion, of assembly and petition, of press and speech — give us the right to think what we like and say what we please. And if we the people are to govern ourselves, we must have these rights, even if they are misused by a minority.

As we confront those who use their right to free speech to abuse the norms of decency and civility, we should calmly recall Jefferson’s admonition from his first inaugural address. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”


Facebook to invest $300 million in local journalism

January 15, 2019

Facebook announced Tuesday that it will invest $300 million over three years in various projects related to journalism, especially to promote local news, which has been hit hard in the digital age.

The move comes with online platforms under pressure for dominating the internet advertising ecosystem, making it harder for news organizations to make a transition to digital.

“People want more local news, and local newsrooms are looking for more support,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president in charge of global news partnerships, said in a blog post.

Facebook follows the lead of Google with a plan to invest $300 million to support local journalism, amid concerns that online platforms have hurt news organizations by dominating online advertising

Facebook follows the lead of Google with a plan to invest $300 million to support local journalism, amid concerns that online platforms have hurt news organizations by dominating online advertising AFP

“That’s why today we’re announcing an expanded effort around local news in the years ahead.”

The initiative includes a $5 million endowment to the Pulitzer Center to launch “Bringing Stories Home,” which will foster coverage on topics that affect local communities — funding at least 12 local in-depth, multimedia reporting projects each year.

Facebook also said it giving $6 million to the British-based Community News Project, which partners with regional news organizations including Reach, Newsquest, JPI, Archant, Midland News Association and the National Council for the Training of Journalists to recruit trainee community journalists.

The huge social network said it was expanding its Accelerator pilot, which launched in the United States in 2018 to help local newsrooms with subscription and membership models.

Facebook said it would invest over $20 million to continue the initiative in the US and to expand globally, including in Europe.

The move by Facebook follows the Google News Initiative unveiled last year by the US internet search giant.


Media watchdog condemns ‘yellow vest’ attacks on journalists

January 13, 2019

Reporters Without Borders on Sunday called on those who speak for France’s “yellow vest” protesters to condemn numerous attacks and threats against journalists across the country during the latest round of anti-government demonstrations.

“A turning point has been reached,” Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of the Paris-based media rights watchdog, told the BFM television channel.

“We are facing a very serious situation which is threatening to get worse,” he said, after reporters were beaten, kicked and threatened with rape during Saturday’s rallies.

"Yellow vest" protesters in the northern French city of Rouen, where a journalist was beaten by a crowd on Saturday

“Yellow vest” protesters in the northern French city of Rouen, where a journalist was beaten by a crowd on Saturday AFP

“We call on the spokespersons of the ‘Yellow Vests’ to solemnly condemn increasing violence against journalists during demonstrations,” he tweeted.

While he paid tribute to protesters who helped protect journalists, he lashed out at those committing “unacceptable anti-democratic blackmail” who say to journalists that “if you do not cover events exactly as we see them… then we are entitled to assault you”.

On Saturday protesters, some wearing yellow vests, surrounded and beat up a security officer accompanying LCI television reporters in the northern city of Rouen, breaking his nose.

In the southern city of Toulon, two AFP video journalists were threatened by protesters and forced to find refuge in a restaurant.

In France’s second-largest city Marseille, the crowd hurled insults at a video journalist from France 3 television as well as two local photographers, preventing them from working.

In the country’s southeast, a journalist was kicked in the city of Pau, while a female reporter of the French newspaper La Depeche du Midi was threatened with rape in Toulouse.

Overnight Friday protesters had also blocked the printing centre of the L’Yonne Republicaine newspaper and prevented the newspaper la Voix du Nord from being distributed.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner lashed out at the attacks on Twitter.

“In our democracy, the press is free. In our Republic, the freedom to inform is unalienable. Assaulting journalists is an attack on both,” he wrote.

More than 84,000 people turned out for the ninth Saturday of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron since November, the interior ministry said, up from 50,000 the previous Saturday.

However, there was a marked decline in violence, despite hundreds of arrests and clashes with police in Paris and other cities.


Fake News: Americans are now using disinformation tactics on one another

January 13, 2019

Dezinformatsiya has gone native, and it will get worse

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LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman 

Russian internet trolls worked overtime in 2016 to inject disinformation into American elections. A year later, as news reports now reveal, Democratic operatives, some funded by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, tried out these same tactics to boost Senator Doug Jones in Alabama. Russia’s online dezinformatsiya has gone native, and it will get worse.

There’s no evidence that Mr. Jones—who beat Republican Roy Moore by 1.6 points—knew about this deceit operation. Its small scale means it probably didn’t affect the final outcome. Still, the details are vexing. Project Birmingham, as it reportedly was called, ran on $100,000 of Mr. Hoffman’s money.

Mr. Hoffman has since apologized, saying he didn’t know how the funds were being spent. But imagine the media and political backlash if Charles Koch had funded such an operation. Democrats would already be calling for public hearings, if not hangings.

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Charles Koch


A post-election debrief, quoted by the Washington Post, describes several prongs of attack. The project “planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.” As evidence of success, it cites a newspaper headline saying Mr. Moore was “flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers.” A Facebook page aimed at Alabama voters posted conservative content to gain their trust, then sprinkled in anti-Moore messages, while promoting a GOP write-in candidate as an alternative to Mr. Moore.

A separate effort, which according to the New York Times received $100,000 from unnamed Virginia donors, tried to link Mr. Moore to alcohol prohibition via “Dry Alabama” pages on social media. Also, there are reports that fake conservative Facebook pages, again using Mr. Hoffman’s money, pushed the Democratic ballot lines last year during tight Senate elections in Texas and Tennessee.

What to do about all this? Mr. Jones sent the Federal Election Commission a letter Wednesday urging an investigation “to determine if any federal election laws were violated and, if so, to impose the maximum penalties.” But lying in elections generally isn’t illegal, so long as the spending on it is properly disclosed and reported.

Social-media websites have stepped up their efforts to ferret out this kind of abuse. After 2016, Facebook tightened the rules around political advertising. The user must now send in a copy of his ID, and Facebook physically mails him a security code, which is a barrier to secret Muscovites.

Much of what’s at issue here, however, isn’t advertising. Political operatives set up social-media pages, attracted audiences, and then inserted anti-Moore ideas. Facebook prohibits this kind of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and has closed five accounts related to the Alabama operation. Yet the initial deception is enabled by the internet’s core features: anonymity and user-generated content.

Setting up a new Facebook page—even one categorized as a “News & Media Website”—takes about 15 seconds. Such openness is often a feature, not a bug. It lets people build online communities, and helps businesses market their products at low cost. Last year Facebook began asking pages with “a large U.S. audience” to confirm the “primary country location” of their managers. Maybe further steps can be taken, even if there’s no way to verify every politically tinged page from here to Honolulu.

One way to discourage such shenanigans is to put election spending back in the hands of candidates and political parties. Hard donation limits, meant to cure the appearance of corruption, have shunted money to outside groups, which are far less accountable. Would Mr. Hoffman have funded these high jinks if he were able to write the Jones campaign a $100,000 check? Our guess is probably not.


Beyond that, there’s a serious need for renewed public skepticism, especially on social media. In the internet’s early days, the prevailing attitude was that you shouldn’t believe everything you see online. But now the public is used to reading digital newspapers, and Wikipedia has eaten the library reference section. Too many people are credulous about whatever information happens to float by—whether it’s malicious or merely intended as satire.

The danger will grow as computers get better at doctoring audio and video. Recently AI researchers created fake footage of President Obama, which showed him speaking the words of impressionists.

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The effect isn’t perfect. But it’s analogous to watching “Toy Story” in 1995 and considering the future of digital animation. Text-to-speech programs have gotten scary good at mimicking specific voices. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before this stuff is weaponized: a clip surfaces, say, purporting to show a politician using a racial slur.

Censorship and regulation—the federal Department of Social Media—isn’t the answer. That would put politicians in control of political speech. It will be up to voters, as it always has been, to separate false and misleading claims from the truth.

Appeared in the January 12, 2019, print edition.


Widely cited study of fake news retracted by researchers

Needed in the Russia investigation: More skepticism of Manafort and the media (Lynch Mob Doesn’t Need a Rope, At Least Not Yet)

January 11, 2019

Don’t fall for the media “bombshells,” and never count Manafort as a friend.

The Russia-collusion story manages to be at once frenetic and humdrum. Apparent bombshell revelations arise but without advancing the public’s knowledge beyond a couple of truths we all knew back in 2016: First, when it comes to President Trump, the media can’t control itself. Second, Paul Manafort is no friend.

In perhaps the 1,000th “ bombshell” report on the Russia investigation, the New York Times reported earlier this week that Manafort, as Trump’s campaign chairman, had sent internal polling data to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is “close to the Kremlin.”

Washington Examiner

This revelation perturbed us. Seeing how close Manafort and Michael Flynn were to both Russia and Trump, we have kept an open mind about the investigation into collusion. We don’t know all the facts, and so we try to process all new information on its merits.

Oleg Deripaska — Credit Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

Yet while many media outlets — see Esquire, Talking Points Memo, and others — took the Times report as conclusive proof of collusion, we held our fire. Why? Because while we have tried to keep cool about this investigation, the largest media outlets have not. We recall ABC reporting that Flynn met with the Kremlin during the campaign. That was a “bombshell” of the first order. Except that it turned out to be false.

And so it was with the latest Times report. Manafort was sending the polling data to Ukranians, it turns out, not to Russians as the Times claimed.

Former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn leaves after the delay in his sentencing hearing at US District Court in Washington, DC, December 18, 2018. - President Donald Trump's former national security chief Michael Flynn received a postponement of his sentencing after an angry judge threatened to give him a stiff sentence. Russia collusion investigation head Robert Mueller had proposed Flynn receive no jail time for lying to investigators about his Moscow ties. But Judge Emmet Sullivan said Flynn had behaved in a "traitorous" manner and gave the former three-star general the option of receiving a potentially tough prison sentence now -- or wait until Mueller's investigation was closer to being completed to better demonstrate his cooperation with investigators. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP or licensors

Mike Flynn outside the courthouse

This incident confirmed both of our general operating assumptions on the Russia investigation: Don’t fall for the media “bombshells,” and never count Manafort as a friend.

Manafort went to work for the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016. Trump wasn’t paying Manafort, which should have been a clear warning sign. Manafort was free to Trump for the same reason Facebook is free to you: You are not the customer; you’re the product. Manafort was working for Ukrainian oligarchs and other shady foreign clients, and part of the value he was delivering was proximity to the Republican presidential nominee and the information, such as internal polling, that proximity allowed him.

We have repeatedly warned Trump about this. “Manafort is not your friend,” we wrote in an editorial addressed to the president. “Manafort is a shady foreign agent who tried to exploit you. And if he had never been involved in the Trump campaign, there may not be a Russia investigation at all.”

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There’s some worry that Trump has considered pardoning Manafort. At the very least, we’ve seen Trump praise Manafort. This praise is unwarranted.

Trump should turn his back on this double-dealer who has caused him so much trouble. And we all should show more skepticism of the media “bombshells” that have caused commentators and other reporters so much trouble.

James Mattis Wasn’t Ready to Serve in a Democracy

December 27, 2018

After the tributes die down, the outgoing defense secretary will be remembered for recklessly expanding, and covering up, the country’s wars.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens while President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting with military leaders in the White House on Oct. 23, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens while President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting with military leaders in the White House on Oct. 23, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s decision to rapidly accelerate James Mattis’s termination as defense secretary by two months was deeply misguided. The outgoing defense secretary had offered enough time to nominate and confirm a replacement, and to prepare that person for forthcoming summits and congressional posture hearings. Trump instead ensured that Mattis was summarily forced out via tweet, rather than in the normal White House or Pentagon transition ceremony.

This latest ignoble act by Trump was immediately invoked to burnish Mattis’s reputation as secretary of defense. Throughout his shortened term, and in the tributes written after his resignation, Mattis was generally spared criticism, because it was believed that he stood up to Trump. (Although there is—thankfully—no evidence he refused a direct order from the commander in chief.)  Mattis was also given a pass because he was a good quote, he sounded super tough, and he enjoyed several glowing media profiles that promoted him as “Mad Dog” or a “warrior monk.”

But Mattis has always been more complex than this simplistic portrait, as his many on-the-record comments made in speeches, press statements, and congressional hearings prove. For anyone willing to assess the entirety of the entirety of the public record, rather than just his supposed private interactions with Trump, Mattis’s legacy as defense secretary is unlikely to match the hagiographic eulogies the media immediately provided on his behalf.

On the positive front, Mattis exhibited many of the best traits that had been demonstrated by previous secretaries of defense. He consistently emphasized the need for diplomacy and negotiated outcomes with regards to Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Yemen. Unfortunately, he said little about how or whether the military was postured to support these aspirations, or what was the strategy to reach that end state. To quote Mattis himself, “If you don’t know where you’re going, good luck when you take off on your journey.”

He also repeated the principles he believed should guide U.S. foreign policy, even when they contrasted with Trump’s. People who had not followed Mattis’s comments found his resignation letter a shocking rebuke to the president. It was even reported that Trump did not have an opinion of the letter’s content until he watched news coverage that portrayed it in a negative light. But the letter was essentially a well-crafted compilation of the principles and values that Mattis had professed countless times before. That the mainstream media and Trump found them shocking indicates that they had not been listening to the Pentagon chief.

Finally, Mattis traveled the world constantly to defend those principles he espoused, and to personally thank deployed service members and their families for their sacrifices. He took tough questions from the assembled soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines; told bad jokes; and referenced historians and philosophers, which he hoped the service members would take the time to read for themselves.


Micah Zenko is Whitehead Senior Fellow at Chatham House and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy @MicahZenko

But history will not remember Mattis for what he did from a programmatic or budgetary perspective, but rather the chaotic environment within which he did it. He often had to answer for Trump’s erratic tweets or behaviors. At times he wisely refused to take the bait, but in others he actively defended Trump. For example, stepping outside his military lane in June to defend the supposedly national security-related tariffs imposed by the White House on U.S. treaty allies, Mattis said, “We can’t have a 2 percent on imported cars and other nation have a 10 percent tax on our cars when they’re imported to their country.” Or in December, when he declared, “I have seen all the intelligence we have. We do not have a smoking gun that the [Saudi] crown prince was involved” in the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder—echoing the White House position. But, most impressively—and unlike other cabinet members—Mattis did not debase himself by groveling in Trump’s presence in front of TV cameras.

It is often overlooked that Mattis oversaw a growth in the wars that he inherited from the Obama administration. There was a steady growth in airstrikes in declared warzones (such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan), as well as in non-battlefield settings (Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan). There was also an expansion of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, from 40,517 troops in mid-2017 to 54,180 by September of that year, according to then-available Pentagon data.

Under Mattis the Pentagon also systematically reduced its overall transparency and accountability. Between October 2017 and October 2018, Air Forces Central Command abruptly stopped releasing data on airstrikes in Afghanistan. When this was approved to be released again, the military had stripped out information on targets without explanation. The decision not to publish this happened shortly after the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released findings that showed that 66 buildings had been destroyed in the previous month—targets more likely to hold civilians. In May 2017, an anonymous military press officer confirmed that the Pentagon would no longer acknowledge when its own aircraft were responsible for civilian casualties; rather they were henceforth attributed broadly to the coalition. In January, the Pentagon ordered the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction not to publish certain data that was marked “unclassified” and available for years. Two months later, the Department of Defense reversed course and permitted the oversight authority to continue releasing the data.

But nothing captured the poor transparency of America’s military commitments under Mattis better than Syria. On Nov. 16, 2017, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, claimed there were “about 503” troops in Syria. The following day, the Defense Manpower Data Center quarterly report announced there were actually 1,723. Two weeks later, Defense Department officials reported the figure at “slightly more than 2,000.” What did the military do to resolve this confusing message? In April, the Pentagon simply stopped providing Defense Manpower Data Center numbers for Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—information that had been published for more than a decade.

In December 2017, Mattis defended supporting the air war in Yemen by telling reporters, “I’m never okay with any civilian casualty. Don’t screw with me on this.” It is wrong for any public servant to berate journalists for asking questions, not to mention that it establishes a poor command climate for the entire Department of Defense.

But, far worse, for somebody who claimed he was not okay with civilian casualties Mattis tolerated an enormous number of them. The most consequential decision Mattis made in this regard was to push the power to approve airstrikes—target engagement authority—to lower levels of command. In May 2017, he claimed, “We do everything we can to protect the civilians, and actually … delegating the authority to the lower level allows us to do this better.” But the evidence published by the U.S. military itself and the United Nations showed that Mattis’s assumption proved false, a fact that no journalist or congressional member seems to have ever questioned him about.

When Trump entered office, U.S. Central Command claimed that “199 civilians have been unintentionally killed” by airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since the war began in August 2014. One year later, the command reported that number as 831, meaning 76 percent of all acknowledged civilian deaths in the bombing campaign occurred in the first year of the Trump administration. (These military estimates were a wild undercount, according to a  groundbreaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal.) Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, U.S. airstrikes caused nearly 70 percent more civilian casualties in Trump’s first six months than the first six months of 2016—during which time total U.S. strikes doubled. Finally, Mattis reversed a George W. Bush administration policy from 2008, instead allowing commanders the discretion to use cluster munitions that have a failure rate of higher than 1 percent, which increases the probability of unexploded ordnance injuring civilians.

In September, when asked if women serving “in combat arms makes us more combat-effective,” Mattis replied with a strange rambling answer about how “it goes to the most almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable,” and how infantry are “cocky, they’re rambunctious, they’re necessarily macho and it’s the most primitive—I would say even evil environment.” Ultimately, Mattis proclaimed that while “there are a few stalwart young ladies,” there was insufficient data to make a judgment, and “clearly the jury is out.”

(Ironically, with even less data to go on and in contradiction to a Pentagon-sponsored Rand Corp. study, Mattis was comfortable telling Trump in a February memo that in the Defense Department’s “professional military judgment … there are substantial risks associated with allowing” transgender Americans to serve in the military. This judgement provided the needed post hoc rationalization for Trump’s Twitter declaration seven months earlier that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.”

But, Mattis had already revealed his opinion of women in the military, telling a 2014 audience, “The idea of putting women in [infantry positions] is not setting them up for success,” because “Could you find a few who could do the pullups? Of course you could,” but “Do you really want to mix love, affection, whatever you call it, in a unit where … you’ve now introduced all the affections and the testosterone and the love and everything else that goes into young people?” Women had served with distinction in front-line combat units for years—and as Marines since 1918—before Mattis expressed this embarrassing belief, one that would be immune to data.

In October and December, Mattis claimed that the United States was providing in-air refueling to the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, “so the pilots didn’t feel they had to make a hasty decision about the drop or not to drop, that sort of thing.” This was an attempt to rewrite history in real time, since protecting civilians was not the purpose of the refueling under former President Barack Obama or under Trump. As the Central Commander James Votel explained to the Senate in March, refueling was necessary because it “gives us placement, it gives us access and it gives us influence … with Saudi Arabia,” adding, “They want this type of support, and they want to improve their capabilities.” It was not, as Mattis claimed, to prevent civilian casualties but to literally fuel an air campaign that ensured them by its systematic, indiscriminate nature.

In January, when asked about great power competition with Russia and China, Mattis proclaimed, “We don’t invade other countries … we settle things by international rule of law … we respect these as sovereign nations with a sovereign voice and sovereign decisions.” This claim is totally false—during Mattis’s long and distinguished career, the United States (overtly) invaded or intervened in Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and others, without the approval of their recognized sovereign government. But, far more worrisome is how this historical amnesia is indicative of the general lack of self-awareness demonstrated by most American civilian and military officials. They literally cannot imagine how the world perceives U.S. military aggression, and why it is a flawed strategy to try to constrain China and Russian actions by championing universalist principles, which the United States itself violates.

In June 2017, Mattis told a journalist, “I don’t care for ideological people. It’s like those people just want to stop thinking.” But many comments hinted that he was as ideological as other mortals. In 2014, he stated that “victimhood in America is exalted.” (What news does he read to conclude this?) In 2016, he hinted, “we do not undercut the military battlefield effectiveness with shortsighted social programs.” (“Social programs” meaning the rights of female, gay, or transgender citizens.) That same year, he worried that “policymakers who have never served in the military” would “use the military to lead social change in this country.” (Mattis oversaw Trump’s election-year stunt deployment of 5,600 troops to the southern border.) In 2017, he asserted, “I was on dozens of college campuses in those three [retirement] years, over 30, and they don’t seem to have the degree of almost casual respect for one another. It’s just an inbred thing.” (What?) And, in 2017, he warned Congress, “If we don’t remove the defense caps, then we’re questioning whether or not America has the ability to survive.” (This is unsupported threat-mongering).

In September, Trump opined about the outgoing defense secretary, “I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth.” But, listening to Mattis talk about the United States and its military, he sounds sort of like a conservative Republican—though he stated, “I’ve never registered for any political party”—and he voluntarily served in a deeply conservative Republican administration. Mattis was confirmed only after Congress agreed to waive a requirement that officers be retired for seven years before becoming secretary of defense. Perhaps future presidents and senators—who confirm Pentagon chiefs—should consider whether 42-year military officers can overcome their deep institutional biases and beliefs, and if they are best suited to be the top civilians leading and overseeing the armed forces.


Nicaragua police raid opposition paper, end rights groups’ permits

December 16, 2018

Nicaraguan police have raided the offices of an opposition daily and then stripped human rights and activist groups’ permission to operate, those targeted said Saturday.

Nine police officers armed with rifles entered the offices late Friday and started pushing people, beating others and making fun of reporters after journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro challenged them to take on his media outlet without a search warrant in his online daily Confidencial and news broadcasts Esta Semana and Esta Noche, he said.

What you are doing “is just de facto. If you have the order, I ask you to show it,” Chamorro said from the street to the agent who barred him and other colleagues from entering the offices.

“Police did not show any order at all… so this is an armed assault on private property, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and free enterprise,” he later told reporters.

Confidencial’s front door was sealed with tape following the raid. Police seized work equipment and documents.

Riot police stand guard inside of the raided office of journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, critic of the government of President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua December 15, 2018. (REUTER)

Chamorro went to the police headquarters to demand the return of equipment, noting that the newspaper and television programs “are private companies attached to the commercial register, and have nothing to do with organizations that are being persecuted.”

The offices of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and four other NGOs in Managua were also occupied, and lawmakers cancelled their permits to operate.

“Brutal display of brute force against journalists from @confidencial_ni in Nicaragua… this regime… aims to demolish critical voices in its country,” Human Rights Watch director Jose Miguel Vivanco said on Twitter.

Leftist President Daniel Ortega first came to power in 1979 as a leader of the leftist Sandinista rebels that toppled the US-backed Somoza family dictatorship. After leaving office in 1990 he returned to power in 2007.


Don’t they do this kind of thing in China?

Nigeria confirms eight soldiers killed in Boko Haram attack

December 6, 2018

The Nigerian army said eight soldiers have been confirmed dead in a Boko Haram attack on a military base over the weekend in the country’s restive northeast.

Gunmen from the self-styled Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction of Boko Haram attacked the base in Buni Gari village, in Yobe state, on Saturday.

Military sources initially said two soldiers and six insurgents were killed. Earlier on Tuesday, they told AFP the toll had risen to eight.

“Eight of our gallant troops paid the supreme price while over 10 Boko Haram terrorists were killed by the troops during the encounter,” army spokesman Brigadier General Sani Usman told AFP by text message.

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Brigadier General Sani Usman

A senior officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said six bodies had been taken to the Yobe state capital, Damaturu.

A civilian militia member assisting the military in the counter-insurgency confirmed the recovery.

“All the eight dead soldiers are now in the morgue at the State Specialist Hospital in Damaturu,” he said, also on condition of anonymity for fear of sanction.

The insurgents destroyed an armoured vehicle and stole a truck during the attack.

Sources said air support and reinforcements from a military base in the nearby town of Buni Yadi helped push the militants out.

Buni Yadi district is a known ISWAP stronghold.

The faction has in recent months intensified attacks on military targets in Yobe and neighbouring Borno state, prompting questions about the military’s grip on security.

Since July, AFP has reported at least 19 attacks on military bases and positions in Borno and Yobe. ISWAP had claimed responsibility for most of them.

The Nigerian military has hit out at media reporting of the attacks and even threatened legal action against organisations for publishing unofficial casualty figures.

Borno and Yobe, along with nearby Adamawa state, have borne the brunt of nine years of jihadist violence that has claimed 27 000 lives and devastated the remote region.

Some 1.8 million people are still homeless while aid agencies are grappling with a humanitarian crisis triggered by the conflict.


New York Times prints something sane about immigration: ‘People can’t just walk in’

November 28, 2018

New York Times columnist and taxi conversationalist Thomas Friedman had what should be a historic moment on his paper’s op-ed page.

In his column published Tuesday night, Friedman said elected Democrats should figure out what their party believes in on immigration. And, he added, it cannot simply be the position that open borders are necessary and all immigration enforcement is racism, which is what they’ve been mostly preaching since late 2015.

“I don’t think the Democratic Party is just for open borders,” he wrote. But he noted also that Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., had earlier this month compared U.S. immigration enforcement to the KKK. “Alas, though, I’m also not sure what exactly is the party’s standard on immigration — and questions like Harris’s leave it open to demonization.”

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Friedman bitterly accused Republicans and President Trump of using immigration as “a wedge issue” (a common media term for “effective policy position”), but he acknowledged that Democrats are out of their depth on the subject.

“Regarding the border, the right place for Democrats to be is for a high wall with a big gate. Democrats won’t do as well as they can nationally without assuring Americans that they’re committed to securing our borders; people can’t just walk in.”

As usual, Friedman went on to talk about the countries he’s been visiting lately — “am in Peru now” — and how hot and crowded the earth is. But the parts about immigration made the whole thing worth it. Democrats might want to read this one.

Philippine Government not sure if barring media from South China Sea is official Beijing policy

November 27, 2018

Malacañang will not yet take concrete steps or make any pronouncements after Chinese coastguard personnel barred a Filipino media team from covering a portion of the West Philippine Sea that is well within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

A Palace spokesman said Monday it will first have to validate if the ban on Philippine media is an official policy of Beijing.

Observers have been urging the Duterte government to lodge a protest against China after Chinese coast guard men recently blocked a team from news network GMA-7 planning to conduct interviews at the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).

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But Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said an investigation must first be made by the foreign affairs department before any steps can be taken by the government. He also urged the media team involved to file a complaint that will be coursed through the proper channels.

“Is it a policy of China to prohibit mediamen from going there or not? We don’t know that yet,” Panelo said in a Palace press briefing.

“You have to give us a letter complaint expressing your concern so that we can act appropriately. We will refer you to DFA and the DFA will write the government of China whether or not there is such a policy.”

Panelo said there is a need to clarify whether the Chinese policy comes from the top. The recent barring of the GMA team, however, is not the first incident where a group of reporters, Filipino or foreigner, was confronted by Chinese troops in the hotly contested sea.

Asked whether the Chinese act was violative of the Philippines’ rights in its very own front yard, Panelo said, “We don’t know if it was just their Chinese coastguard making threats.”

Nonetheless, he said “anything that is violative of our rights as a nation, anything that violates the rights of our citizens, we will always find it objectionable.”

“If that is really their policy, [DFA Secretary Teodoro] Locsin will take care of that. That’s his turf.”

Panelo said he already relayed the concerns about the incident to Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua and the latter said any complaint should be formally made.

He also underscored the need to continue holding talks with China and other Southeast Asian nations for the crafting of a code that will government the behavior of claimant states to the strategic sea lane.

“The problem is they feel that they own that place eh. They are showing that they own it. They are making prohibitions on certain acts,” Panelo said. “The President said, let’s have self restraint. First is we craft the code of conduct.”

The Philippines in 2016 defeated China in a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal, which invalidated Beijing’s economic claim to the strategic sea lane.

President Rodrigo Duterte, however, has chosen to set aside the ruling in exchange for better economic ties with Asia’s largest economy.

China has ignored the ruling and insists it has sovereignty over the waters. Duterte, meanwhile, has raised little opposition to China’s continued military activities in the area.

Duterte had said that despite his government’s rapprochement with China, he would never surrender the country’s claims to the sea and would bring up Manila’s arbitration victory against Beijing at the appropriate time.