...several decades later: How broken are our nation's journalistic systems?
Consider a current bit of too little, (several decades) too late. The report in question appears in this morning's Washington Post.
Paul Farhi's report in the Post concerns a decision made by The Hill, an insider Capitol Hill publication. Roughly one year too late, The Hill has decided to renounce a large chunk of influential published work concerning Candidate Biden:
FARHI (2/20/2020): In a lengthy and damning review of former columnist John Solomon, the Hill newspaper ripped Solomon—and itself—for publishing misleading and poorly attributed articles last year that asserted corruption by Joe Biden in his dealings with Ukraine during his time as vice president.Oof. Roughly a year too late, The Hill has decided that Solomon's work about Candidate Biden was grossly misleading.
The columns, published in early 2019, set in motion President Trump’s demand that Ukrainian officials announce an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Trump’s demand, and his withholding of military aid to Ukraine, led to the House’s impeachment of Trump and his subsequent acquittal in the Senate.
Trump and his allies, including his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and his son Donald Trump Jr., promoted Solomon’s Hill columns via Twitter, and Solomon made several appearances on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program to promote his conclusions, which were that Biden, then considered Trump’s top 2020 challenger, had ousted Ukraine’s top prosecutor to head off an investigation into the company that had hired his son.
That allegation has never been proved; indeed, the former Ukrainian prosecutor has recanted it.
In effect, the Hill said Solomon amplified an inaccurate and one-sided narrative about the Bidens and Ukraine that was fed to him by Giuliani, “facilitated” by businessman Lev Parnas, who was working with Giuliani at the time, and reinforced by Solomon’s own attorneys, who also represented clients embroiled in U.S.-Ukraine politics.
The Hill's review of Solomon's work is quite lengthy. We found dark amusement in the highlighted parts of this passage:
THE HILL (2/19/20): While Solomon's columns on Ukraine were labeled as opinion, they largely read like news stories. Adding to the potential confusion between opinion and news, Solomon was identified as "an award-winning journalist" in his column tagline. When appearing on television to discuss his Ukraine columns, Solomon was not typically labeled an opinion writer by the broadcast programs. The Hill did not contact television producers to label Solomon as an opinion columnist. It should have.In our view, the most comical terms in modern journalism are "award-winning journalist" and "expert." Beyond that:
Lending further support to an impression that the columns were more like news stories, rather than opinion columns, Solomon’s Ukraine columns were longer than typical opinion pieces, in many cases contained what could be viewed or was identified by him as original reporting, and stuck to one general topic. This may have suggested to many readers it was an investigative series, which normally resides in the news department, rather than opinion. Solomon’s subsequent appearances on Fox News where he was often identified as an investigative journalist further potentially blurred the distinction between news and opinion in the minds of some readers.
According to The Hill, the presentation of Solomon's work tended to blur a distinction which is amazingly blurry in the mental world of modern journalism—the distinction between "news" and opinion. But so it endlessly goes among us, the rational animals.
Could Candidate Biden ever have been a successful opponent of President Trump? We have no idea.
Might he still be the Democratic nominee? Everything is possible!
That said, Solomon's work jumped from The Hill over to Fox, where millions of people were watching. Almost surely, the barrels of bluster involved in this attack on Biden harmed the candidate's reputation of all sides of various aisles.
We suppose we ought to give The Hill credit for conducting this review of Solomon's work. That said, Solomon has been producing work of this type for a very long time.
We've been puzzled by his peculiar work going all the way back to the fall of 2000, when he was working for the Associated Press and writing about the Gore campaign. Back then, of course, his weird reports about Candidate Gore made him a part of the overall herd.
It was very hard to draw distinctions between the mainstream and the right-wing press when it came to the coverage of Candidate Gore. The press corps' two branches had come together in a very unusual way, forming an assault which eventually sent Bush to the White House.
That said, The Hill had had twenty years to wonder about this star reporter turned opinion columnist. His work has been challenged and criticized every step of the way, but our journalistic systems have been on the brink of collapse for the pasts several decades.
For that reason, Solomon sailed from the AP to the Washington Post, then on to the Washington Times and eventually to The Hill, where they finally decided to check his work roughly twenty years too late.
People who saw Solomon's segments on Hannity didn't necessarily know that his claims possibly shouldn't be trusted. Similarly, people watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC without having any real way to know how shaky her work often been—in our view, shaky bordering on a diagnosis of "trusting viewer abuse."
Is it all tribal reinforcement now? Is it all tribal entertainment? Is it all tribal pleasure?
In October 2017, Janet Malcolm published a lengthy profile of Maddow in the New Yorker, a well-known Bible of the self-impressed upper-end very smart left.
Malcolm was highly experienced and had been frequently celebrated. Now, though, she was writing these pensees about "the current liberal sweetheart of cable TV," and the New Yorker had put them in print:
MALCOLM (10/9/17): Maddow is widely praised for the atmosphere of cheerful civility and accessible braininess that surrounds her stage persona. She is onstage, certainly, and makes no bones about being so. She regularly reminds us of the singularity of her show (“You will hear this nowhere else”; “Very important interview coming up, stay with us”; “Big show coming up tonight”). Like a carnival barker, she leads us on with tantalizing hints about what is inside the tent.Is it all tribal enjoyment? Malcom went on to offer these thoughts about the cable star's carefully planned "performance of the Rachel figure:"
As I write this, I think of something that subliminally puzzles me as I watch the show. Why do I stay and dumbly watch the commercials instead of getting up to finish washing the dishes? By now, I know every one of the commercials as well as I know the national anthem: the Cialis ad with curtains blowing as the lovers phonily embrace, the ad with the guy who has opioid-induced . . . constipation (I love the delicacy-induced pause), the ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance in which the woman jeers at the coverage offered by a rival company: “What are you supposed to do, drive three-quarters of a car?” I sit there mesmerized because Maddow has already mesmerized me. Her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV. “The Rachel Maddow Show” is a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show. It is TV entertainment at its finest. It permits liberals to enjoy themselves during what may be the most thoroughly unenjoyable time of their political lives.
MALCOLM: Maddow’s TV persona—the well-crafted character that appears on the nightly show—suggests experience in the theatre, but Maddow has had none. “I am a bad actor. I can be performative. But I can’t play any other character than the one who appears on the show. I can’t embody anyone else.” To keep herself in character, so to speak, Maddow marks up the text that she will read from a teleprompter with cues for gestures, pauses, smiles, laughs, frowns—all the body language that goes into her performance of the Rachel figure. “My scripts are like hieroglyphics,” she said. I asked her if I could see a page or two of these annotated texts. She consented, but then thought better of it.In fairness, these are Malcolm's impressions of Maddow's show. But is it all performance now? Does little else remain?
According to leading anthropologists, we humans have never enjoyed being told that we aren't enormously sharp. But Malcolm was saying that the Maddow Show is "TV entertainment" designed to let us liberals enjoy ourselves, and she seemed to be praising Maddow for providing this service.
She herself was so mesmerized that she had "dumbly" memorized the commercials. So it has gone as partisan cable and the partisan Net have melted our skill sets down.
Solomon had been at this forever, but The Hill was still printing his work. When he appeared on Hannity, viewers had no obvious way of knowing that they were perhaps being misled.
One hour earlier, watching Tucker, they may have seen one of Carlson's persuasive segments featuring our own tribe's imperfection. So it went last Friday night when Tucker sent in the clowns—the folk who had been mesmerized by Stormy Daniels and her lawyer, a fellow who, that very day, had been convicted of various crimes.
Stormy shook a candidate down for cash. In this way, she became our flailing tribe's feminist hero.
While this was going on, Malcolm was memorizing the ads. So it went inside the New Yorker as the center failed to hold and our systems went into collapse.
Tomorrow: Recalling Monday's examples