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Under Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House briefings have become scarce. Over June, July, and August, Sanders held just 13. When she does speak to the press, she is adept at deflecting without losing her cool, and consistently fails to provide transparent, honest explanations for administration policies—according to ABC News, this summer she spent fewer than four hours fielding reporters’ questions. The only briefing so far this month was on September 10.
For some, the dwindling number of briefings is no problem. Plenty of critics, myself included, have grown weary of the constant dissembling. Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor of journalism at New York University, has been arguing since the beginning of the Trump administration that news outlets would be better off “sending the interns” to cover briefings. Others have argued that, with cameras rolling, reporters spend more time grandstanding than pressing administration officials on substance.
Daily—or near-daily—on-camera briefings are a relatively new feature of White House communications efforts. They became the norm during the Clinton administration, and press secretaries under Presidents Bush and Obama continued the tradition. Still, Olivier Knox, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the briefing “has both a symbolic and a substantive importance to the White House press corps.” It shows, Knox said, “that the most powerful political institution in American life is not above being questioned.”
That symbolism—the visible evidence that the administration accepts challenges from the press—matters. President Trump may be generally open to answering a few questions at pool sprays or strolls to Marine One, but in those instances he’s free to pick which questions to answer or to ignore reporters altogether. Sanders doesn’t have that luxury.
The briefing is often a maddening exercise in convoluted explanations, repeated denials, and “I’ll-have-to-get-back-to-you’s,” but its existence is a testament to the idea that no one is above having to explain themselves. That makes it worth saving.
Below, more on the disappearing White House press briefing.
- Fighting for access The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reports that the WHCA has pushed the administration for more briefings, but has made little headway with those requests. Wemple notes that, even when Sanders has held briefings, they’ve been much shorter than those overseen by previous press secretaries.
- A possible fix: Before Trump took office, former press secretaries Mike McCurry and Ari Fleischer argued that the briefing format was due for an update. For CJR, they suggested that the daily briefing continue, but that it no longer be a live televised event.
- “Trump’s battering ram”: The New Yorker’s Paige Williams profiled Sarah Sanders. “Sanders often appears to mistake journalism for stenography or cheerleading—she sometimes tells the media what to “celebrate,” such as the state of the economy,” Williams writes. “Sometimes, when confronted with the fact that reporting is often adversarial, she reflexively mentions courtesy, seemingly not understanding that journalism is an exercise in democracy, not etiquette.”
Other notable stories:
- Disney CEO Bob Iger sits down with The Hollywood Reporter’s Matthew Belloni to discuss “his plan for a Netflix rival, ESPN’s politics problem and how #MeToo has changed his company.”
- CJR’s Mathew Ingram examines whether the podcast bubble is bursting. Recent announcements from Panoply and BuzzFeed News have raised concerns among audio fans that the financial foundation of medium may not be quite as solid as they hoped. Podcasting isn’t dying, Ingram writes, it just “requires an investment of time and money to do well, something that not every media company has a lot of right now.”
- I missed this yesterday, but ESPN’s Rachel Nichols was outstanding in her aggressive interview with Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban. An NBA report found that Cuban oversaw an organizational culture where sexual harassment and misconduct repeatedly went unpunished.
- Whether Christine Blasey Ford will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week remains an open question. Ford’s lawyers wrote a letter to the committee saying that she “would be prepared to testify next week” if the senators offer her “terms that are fair and which ensure her safety,” CNN reports. She will not, however, agree to appear on Monday, the date that committee chairman Chuck Grassley had offered.
- CNN’s Brian Stelter examines President Trump’s false claim that NBC “got caught fudging” tape of the interview that Trump gave to Lester Holt just after firing James Comey. The interview has become a focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice.
- Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sat down with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum to criticize the since-corrected New York Times story that incorrectly blamed her for costly purchase of new curtains for the ambassador’s residence. “I appreciate the retraction but that story follows you everywhere you go,” Haley said.
- For CJR, Jacob Goldberg reports that the recent sentencing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar has left Burmese journalists “grasping for guidance on how to proceed without risking their freedom.”
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That some of the men accused of harassment and abuse would eventually return to the public eye was never in doubt. Months ago, Katie J.M. Baker acknowledged in The New York Times that attempted comebacks were inevitable, and asked, “What do we do with these men?” The past week has provided examples of what not to do with them, and that includes handing over control of the pages of respected publications to their attempts at rehabilitation.
The decision to publish an essay by disgraced Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi in the New York Review of Books appears to have cost the magazine’s editor, Ian Buruma, his job. Facing intense criticism for putting Ghomeshi’s “Reflections from a hashtag” on NYRB’s cover, Buruma said in Slate that the man’s past—which included allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by more than 20 women—wasn’t his “concern.” On Wednesday, Buruma left his position, though it is unclear whether he resigned, was asked to resign, or was fired.
NYRB wasn’t alone in getting pushback to such a piece. In its October 11 issue, Harper’s will carry an essay by former public radio host John Hockenberry, who was alleged to have carried out a pattern of sexual harassment in the workplace. The magazine’s publisher, Rick MacArthur, suggested in an interview with the CBC that his staff was supportive of the decision to publish the piece, but recently departed managing editor Hasan Altaf pushed back against that claim, telling HuffPost, “No one in editorial was in support of the Hockenberry article.”
The men who feel they have been unfairly treated following accusations of harassment or abuse are entitled to their perspective, but nothing demands that editors turn over the pages of their publications to these figures. It has been less than a year since The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, opening the floodgates through which hundreds of women have spoken up about their treatment by powerful men. The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino summarized the message that is conveyed when publications decide to highlight the words of those accused: “Women have had their ‘moment,’ their unprecedented time in the spotlight of cultural favor,” she writes. “The gravitational pull of male power is exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”
CJR’s Nausicaa Renner noted the difference in form that allows men accused of harassment or assault to pontificate in personal essays, while women who make allegations are quoted in rigorously reported third-person articles. “The confession, when made by men showing a sensitive side, is a literary device to display a newly whole, unified character who is stronger thanks to introspection. Women, however, have the reverse experience: to ensure that their accounts are bulletproof, they are quoted, rather than given space to describe their experience in their own words,” Renner writes. “Their abuse is not entitled to be literary, only their abusers.”
Writing on the plays for public sympathy by Hockenberry and Ghomeshi, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple argues that, “first-person pieces, it turns out, often require more editing, more supervision than conventionally reported pieces,” Wemple writes. “Don’t hand over your publication’s keys to your essayist. That’s what Medium is for.”
Below, more on the reaction to the attempted returns of fallen men.
- On the comebacks: Responding to Hockenberry’s essay, and the slow reemergence of other #MeToo men, The New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg writes, “I feel sorry for a lot of these men, but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all. And maybe that’s why the discussion about #MeToo and forgiveness never seems to go anywhere, because men aren’t proposing paths for restitution. They’re asking why women won’t give them absolution.”
- Buruma’s defense: Slate’s Isaac Chotiner gives a masterclass in aggressive questioning in his interview with Buruma that ran shortly after Ghomeshi’s piece was published.
- A failure of leadership: “What Buruma and the NYRB leadership failed to grasp was that men like Ghomeshi aren’t entitled to a nicely packaged redemption arc,” wrote The Washington Post’s Mili Mitra.
Other notable stories:
- For Esquire, Ioan Grillo tells the story of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez’s “vibrant life and tragic death.” Valdez, who was killed in May 2017, spent years reporting on cartels. “His favored subjects were the unseen faces of the cartel wars: the members of brass bands who played ballads to men in crocodile-skin boots and women with diamond-studded fingernails; children on dirt roads who dreamed of being hit men; crying mothers whose sons had been murdered,” Grillo writes.
- Billionaire owners of the new Gilded Age may seem like saviors to struggling publications they purchase, writes The New York Times’s David Gelles, “but there are also fresh concerns, some based on recent experience, that these individuals are assuming an unhealthy amount of influence.”
- For CJR, D. Victoria Baranetsky, the general counsel at The Center for Investigative Reporting, writes about a question data journalists find themselves regularly asking: “Will I go to prison for violating the terms of service?” She writes that Silicon Valley companies have failed to create exceptions for journalists who use data scraped from social networks to do their reporting, and that it’s time for lawmakers to get involved.
- BuzzFeed News is cutting back on it’s podcast ambitions, reports The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin. The company is cutting its in-house podcast production team and shutting down several of its podcasts as it focuses on video expansion, Mullin writes.
- Sean Hannity will interview President Trump Thursday evening in Las Vegas, where Trump is holding a rally.
- The New York Times’s Jon Caramanica laments the “death” of the celebrity profile, and argues that “what’s replaced it isn’t satisfying: either outright silence, or more often, unidirectional narratives offered through social media. Monologue, not dialogue. It threatens to upend the role of the celebrity press.”
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For many casual YouTube users, the Google-owned video service is a harmless way to waste time, listen to music, or maybe even learn how to install a new appliance. But if you dig below the surface, as the non-profit research institute Data & Society does in a new report, you quickly start to see odd or even disturbing links to right-wing pundits and conspiracy theories. This is YouTube’s alter ego, what sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has called “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.” And it’s not a coincidence, the report says—it’s a deliberate attempt to radicalize users by pulling them into a vortex of reactionary content.
In the Data & Society analysis, “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube,” researcher Rebecca Lewis looks at 65 political influencers across 81 YouTube channels, and identified what she calls an Alternative Influence Network or AIN. The AIN uses the same techniques that brands and other social-media influencers use to build followers and garner traffic, but uses them as a way to sell users on a specific right-wing ideology. This media pundits and internet celebrities in the network, which include Canadian professor Jordan Peterson and white supremacist Richard Spencer, “use YouTube to promote a range of political positions, from mainstream version of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism,” Lewis writes in the report.
Just as Instagram users might market a new brand of alcohol by posting photos and videos of themselves and tagging others to extend their reach, social networking among right-wing influencers on YouTube “makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions,” Lewis writes. And Google, of course, happily monetizes all of that engagement and traffic with ads.
It’s not just that Google is taking advantage of the traffic generated by these networks. As I wrote for CJR earlier this year, the problem is exacerbated by Google’s recommendation engine, an algorithm that suggests new videos for users to watch after they have finished with the one they clicked on or searched for. For many younger users, this is the new TV—watching video after video on YouTube. And the site’s algorithm is often gamed by right-wing trolls to get their hoaxes or fake news high up in the recommended list, an example of what the Oxford Internet Institute has called “computational propaganda.”
Google has said it is concerned about misinformation on YouTube (especially after conspiracy theories were some of the top recommendations after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February) and that it is trying to implement a number of features that will reduce the likelihood users will see fake news in the recommended list. But what Lewis describes in her Data & Society report is even harder to root out—a coordinated attempt to expose viewers to right-wing ideologies, not necessarily through the use of conspiracy theories or fakes, but through the kind of brand-building that YouTube and other social tools excel at.
Here are some more links related to misinformation and computational propaganda:
- A conspiracy ecosystem: Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, looked at the rise of what he calls the “conspiracy ecosystem” viewers could get sucked into after searching for videos about the Parkland shootings. “It’s not YouTube getting gamed,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s that YouTube has allowed this to flourish. The Florida videos are now taking people to the larger conspiracy space.”
- The intellectual dark web: Many of the right-wing or libertarian personalities Rebecca Lewis mentions in her Data & Society report like to think of themselves as members of what Eric Weinstein, a managing director of billionaire Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, has called the “intellectual dark web.” New York Times writer Bari Weiss wrote about some of the members of this group in May.
- Keep them clicking: Guillaume Chaslot, a former programmer at Google, worked on the recommendation algorithms used by YouTube and told CJR earlier this year the number one metric staffers were supposed to focus on was time spent on the site, not the quality of information. Chaslot has since left the search engine and created a site called AlgoTransparency, aimed at showing how YouTube’s recommendation engine often suggests hoaxes when users search for political or scientific terms.
- A global problem: Gaming YouTube’s algorithms or social networking structure to spread right-wing messages in the US is clearly an issue, but the use of social platforms to spread political misinformation and even dangerous conspiracy theories is widespread, according to a recent report by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda project. Researchers found evidence of “formally organized social media manipulation campaigns” in 48 countries, up from 28 countries last year.
- Too late for 2018: Although Facebook has tried to clamp down on potential meddling in the US mid-term elections by removing networks of fake pages and “inauthentic” accounts, the social network’s former head of security said recently that it is too late to prevent social-media driven interference in the elections, which he said could become “the World Cup of information warfare.”
Other notable stories:
- Jonathan Kaiman, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, has resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct. Kaiman, who was suspended from the newspaper in May after accusations were made against him by two women, said in a statement that any sexual behavior he engaged in was consensual.
- Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey tells Wired, for its 25th anniversary issue, that he thinks one of the digital pioneers of the next 25 years will be ProPublica and its “experimental journalism.”
- The New York Times apologized on Twitter after it mistakenly identified actress Angela Bassett, who was presenting at the Emmy Awards, as former White House staffer and reality show contestant Omarosa Manigault Newman. The Times said it regretted “running an incorrect caption from a photo wire service in some early print editions.”
- For CJR, Andrew McCormick spoke with Time Editor in Chief Edward Felsenthal about the acquisition of the magazine by software billionaire Marc Benioff. Felsenthal says he thinks Benioff will be a “terrific fit” for the magazine, whose revenues have been on a downward trajectory for some time.
- New York magazine announced that it is expanding its Intelligencer brand with a number of new hires, and will also bring its Select All technology vertical under the same umbrella. The magazine has hired former Business Insider editor Josh Barro, Mic writer Zak Cheney-Rice, and New Republic writer Sarah Jones.
- Anita Hill, who testified about sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing in 1991, writes for The New York Times about how the Senate should handle the confirmation hearing of nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford.