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.

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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.

 

 


From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.


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