Sunday, August 14, 2022

The First Casualties


Truth is the first casualty of war.

            The origin quote, "The first casualty when war comes is truth," was uttered by the second most senior member of the US Senate in history, Senator Hiram Johnson of California in 1917.

        Time has proven Senator Johnson correct. One is led to believe it has been ever such.

        We live in a time of hybrid war, a mostly psychological conflict. Culture and media are weaponized. Public policy and politics are combat. All of us live under assault.

        Truth and a common "reality" suffer attack around the globe and, dangerously, in the US. 

The First Offensive

        To the best of my knowledge, neither Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy nor any leading Republican has been asked about the truth of this prophetic news article published by the New York Times on August 8, 2016.

        David E. Sanger and 

            Aug. 8, 2016

Fifty of the nation’s most senior Republican national security officials, many of them former top aides or cabinet members for President George W. Bush, have signed a letter declaring that Donald J. Trump “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president and “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”

Mr. Trump, the officials warn, “would be the most reckless president in American history.”

The letter says Mr. Trump would weaken the United States’ moral authority and questions his knowledge of and belief in the Constitution. It says he has “demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding” of the nation’s “vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances and the democratic values” on which American policy should be based. And it laments that “Mr. Trump has shown no interest in educating himself.”

        No thinking person will deny that truth. 

      Noted here previously, the names read like an honor roll of veteran policy experts; cabinet members, State Department, Defense, Intelligence, National Security, Justice Department and most of them conservatives.

    The US moral authority has been weakened and we have been put at risk. Isn't it in the public interest to put the issue to the leaders who cower to or abet the twice impeached ex president?  

Hard Truths

    This criticism today is geared not at the propagandizing tools of the right, but a check on how that perversity has spread to unlikely other sources. 

    It is true the false narrative of the Roger Ailes created faux news attack on American values continues to make the Murdoch clan richer by manipulating information for the suckers of Fox News. They have done terrible deeds as enemies of the American Republic. 

    The legacy damage to America's belief in itself has been fanned by Fox and Trump. But like a virus, it has spread. These are merely random examples of a larger bombardment on truth.

    Consider this headline from the New York Times




Did the F.B.I. Just Re-elect Donald Trump?

Aug. 11, 2022


        Later David Brooks said on reflection and after learning more, he understood how grievously serious was the matter of Trump having the most sensitive of secret documents, and about nuclear weapons, in his possession. He acknowledged the process of getting them back was proper and justified. But even the Times, no editorial and opinion page friend of Trump, took their own shot at the credibility of the nation's law enforcement agency with a reckless headline.

        Marvin Kalb, a respected former CBS News Correspondent, now a senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the founding director of the Shorenstein Center on Media at Harvard University posted something recently that will sound familiar to those of you who have been readers of this blog.

"The American press corps struggles every day to prove to readers and viewers that it is “fair and balanced,” the slogan cleverly adopted by Fox News. If it strongly criticized Donald Trump during his presidency (and since), then it follows that it must also strongly criticize Joe Biden, which is exactly what it’s done.

Fair, isn’t it? Balanced, too, right?


Not only does criticism not come in equal shapes and sizes, appropriate for all presidents and both political parties (a journalistic curse called “bothsideism”), but, when unfairly applied, as it has been in covering Biden, it runs the serious risk of further damaging our still free press and weakening our already shaky democracy.

The press image of Biden, president of the United States of America, has been whittled down to that of a doddering old man, wobbly on his feet and barely able to articulate a single thought without slurring.

Is that a fair and balanced image of Biden? Hardly. But can the press do better?"

        Certainly the press can do better. "Bothsideism" or false equivalency are wounds,  serious casualties, and they are self inflicted. 

       Recently Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of the PBS News Hour asked a legal analyst and former federal prosecutor; "how do you know that they followed procedures?" and, after reprising Republican accusations about the search and the FBI, "how do we know who is telling the truth?" (Positing an arbitrary either or between Republican bombast or Attorney General Garland)
        The analyst, in so many words, said "common sense, look at what happened?" He could have said, look at the document or read how these federal warrants are issued. He might also have said "consider the source of the criticism." I would add the question was contrived to get an accusation and entirely missed the point of the larger story line.
        The back and forth related to what was evident in the legal documents, evident that Trump and his people had ignored earlier requests and subpoenas, evident by the procedure that was legal and methodical and was not a "raid" as stated by many in the media. 
         Woodruff was caught up in a game of "gotcha" or the hard question or the snark that is the common currency of media posturing. Questions are asked for the sparks or friction and not for the light that might be shed. It was as though she was saying, "Choose between the Republican shrieks or the Attorney General." Like lesser talents than herself, she was trying to be "tough" or maybe trying to placate Trump fans. 
        He and his administration have not earned respect. Their record should in turn earn them extra scrutiny and skepticism. To elevate what they or their apologists say to a level of equivalency is wrong and evidence of poor journalistic process and judgement. 
        Woodruff is a respected legend in broadcast journalism. We first noticed her when she was a field correspondent for NBC working out of the Atlanta bureau in the '70's. She has had a storied career and enjoys a distinguished reputation so it is disturbing to see someone of that caliber fall victim to what Kalb and others, who have also worked in the hot spots and under deadline, are talking about. The media today is playing for appearances, image, and pretense. It is bad journalism and it is disingenuous.
        On a program she interviewed Republican Senator Tim Scott who has written a book. Not every member of the House,  Senate or Cabinet gets interviewed by the News Hour when they write a book. Scott is an African American Republican and in this age of bothsidism either Woodruff or a senior producer decided it would be good to have him on. Was there news in the interview? No and she let him blather prattling political spew without much of a challenge to the obvious politicking BS. He is up for re-election. Will his challenger get similar national airtime? If there was a need to interview Scott about his book, a better format would have been to record the interview and edit it before airing it. Truth and balance took a hit in the way it was done.

    I'm focused on PBS because they provide a broader perspective, more in depth focus, thoughtful investigations, intelligent balanced analysis and they devote more content time. They don't have to sell dog food or pharmaceuticals and etc.
    PBS is down the middle and objective, not caught up in political leanings, or show business punditry. Their business is news, done soberly. The correspondents are knowledgeable and experts on their beat. PBS is absent the hype and artificial production elements common to the commercial networks and cable operations.
     American network and cable news need to be profit centers, slavish then to whatever gets and keeps ratings. PBS on the other hand is content driven, intellectual and does not pander to partisans or those who seek "silo" news that affirms their beliefs. 
    It is for all of these reasons that I wish Woodruff and her senior producing team would seriously consider the wisdom of Kalb. 

        I was a managing editor of nightly newscasts, a news anchor, and a television news director. My advice is to follow the flow of the story, try to advance the viewer's understanding and expand the story line, anticipate consequence, stick to the facts as you have them, provide context and explain it all. What does it mean? Avoid the mindless group think that being an adversary means being nasty, or trying to catch up someone or prompt them to say something bombastic. Think about depth and spend less effort on toxic social media. Do not rely on the Washington bred idea of "bothsideism." Those are unhelpful and distracting. 
        As an example, using something that a Jim Jordan, a Ron Johnson, even Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy says as the basis of a "challenging question" is simply falling into their trap and getting "used" by them. You can note what they said, but to raise it to a level that exceeds veracity is doing harm and is poor editorial judgement. Avoid being played.
        We have learned this Republican party is interested in maintaining power without an agenda or a platform of principles. Republicans have been caught in lies, suborned insurrection, and have been cowards to or complicit with Trump. Their strategy is to cast doubt on the electoral process, the Justice Department and in the value of our institutions. It is part of the war on Democracy.
         To my staffs I stressed that perspective and proportionality are important judgement tools in journalism. Perspective and proportionality disappear when formula and style overtake the character and nature of a news event or story. Everything has a context, it has a past and will carry an impact on future occurrences and how journalism is done influences that process. Arbitrary attempts at "confrontation" for its own sake are a disservice to the audience and can damage the nation and its understanding of itself. 
       If I was a news manager today, anyone who is still an election denier would be covered only in that context. This is a war.
        Those who advocate or believe the lie are a like cancer in the body politic. Journalists should keep them in focus but extend them no credibility. To give them equal time or even to consider them "the other side" is harmful. To do so would aid and abet the enemies of this nation and puts at risk our security and well being. 

        The uncivil war has already eroded our confidence in the electoral process. That is now a Republican strategy. News leaders need to own up to their responsibilities in this precarious time.
        In parting, we must toss a zinger at one of the nation's leading iconoclasts and commentators. Comic Bill Maher can be a jerk, but he has an amazing depth of understanding. Some of his "New Rules" analysis are brilliant. We urge Mr Maher to choose words carefully.
       He called the execution of the search warrant a "raid."
Quibble if you wish, but it was not a raid. A raid is something else. Is this a big deal? When we live in a nation where a lot of poor souls believe Donald Trump, calling it a raid is yet one more chip off the credibility of a justice system, FBI and the process of law that is under attack by the team that began dividing America, in 2016. Do not play into their strategy.
        It is not inappropriate to examine DOJ, or the FBI or any other agency of state, local and federal government. The media, the Fourth Estate, has a role to play as a watchdog. But it is a damned hard job to do, and one of the labors is operate as independently and objectively as possible. 

        We in the media need to work assiduously to avoid being spun, used, manipulated, or of adopting a heard mentality. We should seek to find truth, verify facts and refuse to be conformed to purposes of commercial or political objective.

        There is a fine line between cynicism and skepticism. I think that is the region in which good journalism functions. I have tried to hew toward the skepticism side because a good reporter also must work to keep an open mind, be willing and able to learn while maintaining an independence. 
        This is one of those times in our national history when journalism is needed and cannot be compromised by vested interests, even self interests.

        Stay alert. See you down the trail. 


Thursday, August 4, 2022

When the fog shrouds...

          Our summer nights have been cozy, wrapped in fog.

      The spirited vapor rolls in from the coast as late evening sun and shadows play across the Santa Lucia slopes. As darkness descends, the fog rises from the valleys and thickens.

        I've taken it as a sedative. It's a shroud, buffering and insulating, changing the appearance of things. It helps take the edge off life's pain, if only temporally and if only in an illusory way.

        We live in a season of madness. We postulate extinction. My generation will not see the end of the whirlwinds we have given flight. Our friends are disappearing. We are no longer fleet. We are increasingly irrelevant. But we, some of us, rage against the insanity, the short sightedness, the decline, and demise.

        Those hard lines and sharp edges of life soften in the fog. 

        Fog may hide things, but we do not hide from life. 
        It seems a lifetime of reporting is calling in IOU's. I am now clobbered by war, disaster, broken hearts, frightening futures, wasted chances, toxic personality, and disappearing evidence of heart and soul. Like many of you, we worry about heirs and the yet unborn. And in every headline and news break is a connective nerve to the moments that soak the brains and hearts of old journalists in the pain, suffering, death, misdeeds and carnival of inhumanity that we saw and felt and can never seem to forget. It is our pass into club PTSD. Of course there are others here too, and some more grievously wounded. 
        The older I get the more resilient the ghosts are. The fog is a cocoon, but only a pretender.

        The Frontline Documentary Ukraine: Life Under Russia's Attack, left me depleted and ranting that a lethal drone should be addressed to Vladimir Putin. Another madman is loose in Europe, again. Why can't we learn from history? And already we are starting to forget. Old news, exactly what he counted on. 

        I had to step out for a walk, in the cool mist.

        It is life out of balance. Election deniers, a radical Supreme Court turning back the calendar on human rights, people tossed out of homes, working poor unable to get by, huge wealth getting larger, oil companies gouging for record profits, fires, floods, and human kind seems paralyzed. Where is the common sense? Where is decency?

        I sat in a briefing this week with a just retired Lt. General who had directed the Department of Defense's  Joint Center on Artificial Intelligence. You probably don't want to hear this, but the Chinese are way ahead of us in digital transformation, global interconnectivity and Artificial Intelligence. As he said the issues are Organization and Innovation. The question is How does an organized and innovative adversary fare on the battlefield?

        The US Military struggles mightily and lags in digital organization and innovation. Same old, same old. Turf battles, who's in control, yaddity, yaddity, yaddity.

        Once some of us were called "angry young men or women." Now we are angry again. As the saying goes, we know where the bodies are buried and we have secrets we will take with us. We've seen how we've missed getting it right, over and over.

       General's also talk about fog. They call it the fog of war, a confusion and lack of judgement caused by war. We are a people at war with our values, with each other, living on a planet that we are at war with.

        The great American writer Ben Hecht offers us wisdom; I see a lot of fog and a few lights. I like it when life's hidden. It gives you a chance to imagine nice things, nicer than they are."

            See you down the trail.