War and the Sources of Fake News

June 25, 2019

The president would have us believe that anything critical of him is fake. To which many respond that everything out of the president’s mouth (or twitter feed) is fake. Both statements, of course, are false.

Everyone makes mistakes but deliberately faked news often has government hands all over it. One American Administration took us into Vietnam based on lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, which were revealed when government reports were finally declassified. Another took us into Iraq on the basis of cooked evidence about weapons of mass destruction.

Teaching free speech, I don’t compare truth and falsity – there are enough screw-ups to go around. I compare whether there is better information when the press can act as watchdog or when we are forced into total reliance on official pronouncements. Around the world the answer is obvious. Here the answer is clouded by our attachments to our favorite politicians. But the so-called classification system is designed to feed us cooked evidence when an Administration thinks we can’t deal with truth. Of course, some secrets are kept for reasons of national security or diplomatic reasons, but much is protected only for political reasons. All Administrations convince themselves that it’s good for America that they keep secrets or that they deliberately mislead us. We simply have to assume that even our own government lies to us regularly, sometimes convinced that it’s good for us and often convinced that distortions are good for themselves.

That’s why the press matters. No person or institution can understand everything or get everything right.  Even Einstein didn’t although I certainly like his batting average. But only by examining conflicting evidence do we have some hope of teasing out what we need to know.

John Stuart Mill gave us our basic understanding of free speech and press, teaching that public officials have reasons to mislead: for reelection, to enlarge their own power, to get what they want done, to protect themselves or their beliefs, etc. His point was human fallibility coupled with power to throttle everyone else spells a high likelihood of official gobbledygook masquerading as truth. Worse, official censorship blocks the press from digging and correcting as many important stories as possible. Science, by contrast, is designed to keep challenging mistakes and getting better answers. A free press, too, can keep improving answers.

Go back to the examples I made at the head of this essay. The press made lots of mistakes about Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the most damaging mistakes resulted from intentional government newsfeeds designed to mislead. We eventually learned the truth about those and many other cases because reporters kept pushing for more and better information.

Unfortunately I’ve learned over many years not to trust our presidents – they have too many reasons to mislead us that seem good to them. I think Trump is worse than most – he so often misstates the facts that I never trust him. Conservative commentator Bret Stephens wrote, “the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.” On the other hand, many other presidents have told the truth just often enough that we become gullible when they really want to mislead us.

There’s no way to know what the situation will be between the U.S. and Iran by the time this is broadcast.  But too many lives are at stake; too much depends on figuring out what information is accurate, who is telling the truth and who isn’t, let alone whether it justifies killing both Iranians and Americans. Let there be no war.


All Criticism of Trump Cannot be Fake News, and what his claim implies

August 10, 2018

I keep looking for things we can say to Trump’s supporters that just might wake them up. Here’s a very basic one.

President Trump has repeatedly told us that all criticism of him is fake news. That can’t be right. No one is infallible. No one. Because it can’t be right, his claim drives these conclusions:

First, we have to tell the difference between what the President says that is true and what the president says that is false. It cannot be either all true or all false.

Second, the claim is an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. If we can’t look or see criticism, then we lose the ability to tell truth from fiction.

Third, just take a cold hard look at this without fear or favor one way or the other – blocking our view of criticism is the first technique of dictators. It insulates them from resistance. One of the first things Trump did in office was to look into pulling the license of the main broadcast news stations. That would have powerfully insulated him from criticism and scared many critics into silence.

Once that happens the consequence for the rest of us can be catastrophic. Dictators, including Vladimir Putin, Trump’s mentor, don’t look out for our welfare once they no longer have to. Silencing or discrediting all criticism of them as fake gives them the ability to take aim at everything you care about, everything that stands in their way, and to claim whatever they want – personal wealth, and the power to reward all those who will bow to their will. That is the dictator’s game: command enough power to silence all dissent and force everyone to do their bidding.

We’ve repeatedly kicked out politicians that disappointed us. The objective of all autocrats is to discredit democracy, a free press and honest elections, so there is little chance of their being kicked out. The men and women we’ve been calling the greatest generation gave their all to protect what America’s founders bequeathed us. Putin’s and Trump’s attacks on a free and critical press and their discounting any threat to honest elections undermine our commitment to democracy. The real answer to the flaws of democracy is the dedication of Americans, winners and losers, to democracy’s principles.

I’ve never met Trump and claim no way to know for sure what is in his heart. But as a lawyer, I know from professional experience, that the most convincing people you will ever meet are the con men. We can’t read their hearts. We have to gauge the risk from their actions and claims. Lambasting the press categorically, as if all the men and women, young and old, who are toiling to get the facts, can never get anything right, is a sure way to protect what should not be protected.

Let me end with a book pick. In The Plot to Destroy Democracy, Malcolm Nance looks at the facts with the cold, calculating eye of a man who has spent his life in American national intelligence. Based on Russian purposes, institutions and behavior, he concludes that the Russians are deliberately threatening our democratic system. Democracy threatens the impunity of autocratic rulers to kill, torture and steal from their own people in order to protect their own power and maximize their own wealth. Regardless of collusion, conspiracy or disloyalty, the combination of Russia’s and Trump’s attacks on the fundamentals of democracy clear the path for tragedy. And our crucial response will be what we do leading up to the elections and at the polls.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 7, 2018.

 

 


Trump’s Claimed Strengths Are Empty Boasts

June 25, 2018

Trump’s behavior offends liberals’ deepest values. They are aghast at his having babies ripped from their mothers’ hands and sometimes even their breasts so their mothers can be hauled away to immigrant detention centers without their infants and children. Liberals were distraught by Trump’s neglect of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and they attack the Trump Administration for systematically unleashing corporate abuse of workers, consumers and those of us downwind or downstream the poisons they unload. Liberals condemn Trump’s preference for trade wars over respectful treatment of long-time allies like Canada and the E.U., with which the U.S. had fruitful trade relations. And they deeply resent his attack on the fundamental values on which American democracy was formed: his encouragement of racism, and his preference for dictators, among many others.

I think Trump is also vulnerable to a very different criticism, that his so-called strengths are empty boasts revealing a naked emperor beneath. Trump claims great negotiating skills. He told us that his real estate experience demonstrated the negotiating skills that he would use in office. But it’s an empty boast.

In office he hasn’t even been able to work with his own party. Their only significant legislation was the tax bill at the very end of the year, and his other legislative success has been getting some of the most embarrassing nominees confirmed. Otherwise he hasn’t been able to reach agreement with his own party on immigrants, and on DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In many areas he has had to act by executive order because he can’t agree with Congress despite Republican control of both houses. But Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Just back from a meeting with Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, Trump boasts of a record breaking agreement to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula. There is however no language of agreement to parse, no details, no schedule, no promise that wasn’t made to prior American presidents, no agreement on inspection or verification. What he got instead was a photo-op. In other words, he has produced much less than President Obama got from Iran in an agreement Trump has repeatedly denounced. But Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Obama’s pivot to Asia produced the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-national agreement among countries ringing the Pacific: Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Canada, and United States. When president Trump pulled us out, the others continued to work together. There were objectionable pro-business provisions in the agreement but Trump made no effort to improve them. Instead, he removed the U.S. from the negotiations and the agreement, and facilitated China’s increasing dominance in the pacific region. Still, Trump says he is a great negotiator.

Mexico has not agreed to build a wall, as he promised. Trump unilaterally imposed tariffs on some imports saying they would protect American business and that there would be no trade war, but there already is.  The international response to Trump’s tariff increases has been retaliation both from former allies, like Canada, Mexico and Europe, and from adversaries like China. There are no countries left to join us to bring pressure on countries causing problems. The last time this kind of tariff contest roiled international waters was in the late 1920s, giving way to the Great Depression and to World War II. But Trump says he is a great negotiator. Thank you, Mr. Trump.

Trump’s claim of negotiating skills is an empty boast intended to conceal his weakness, his unwillingness to negotiate and complete incompetence at it. His lack of skill is a scandal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 19, 2018.


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