News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Billie’s Reality

Reality Winner’s mother and stalwart advocate, Billie Winner-Davis, talks about her daughter’s ongoing imprisonment, the Espionage Act, a Presidential tweet, and the disturbing lack of Press attention

By Gretchen A. Peck

Billie Winner-Davis’ Twitter followers know her to be a near-tireless digital advocate for her daughter, Reality. With only hashtags – #FreeRealityWinner, #CompassionateRelease4Reality, #ProtectWhistleblowers – in her quiver, she’s on a quest to see that her daughter is released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Medical Center in Carswell, Texas – and that Reality’s incarceration hasn’t been in vain.

With a memorable name like Reality Winner, you’d think it would be “household,” part of the pop vernacular. Yet, many Americans still don’t know her name, nor the action she took – she contends, on their behalf.

Reality Winner, USAF veteran

At 18, Winner enlisted in the United States Air Force (USAF), and her natural aptitude for languages carved her path the military. She served as a cryptologic linguist, a marketable skill beyond her six years of service. 

Winner was in her mid-twenties and fresh out of the service when National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Pluribus International hired her to be a translator. It was during the course of her work there that she obtained a classified document that outlined Russia’s sustained campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. election that pitted Hillary Clinton against Donald J. Trump for the Presidency. 

The classified report detailed Russian hackers’ objective to compromise local election and voter registration systems across the country. Winner copied the report, hiding it in her pantyhose to get it off site, she later told investigators. She sent the document to Glenn Greenwald’s former outlet, The Intercept. 

Winner was arrested in June 2017, two days before The Intercept published its story.

Now, three years and another Presidential election later, the information Winner disclosed seems somehow quaint. Volumes have been written on Russia’s meddling, including the thick tome Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team produced, but few read. 

The United States of America charged Winner under the Espionage Act, law intended to prosecute the nation’s most insidious traitors. Prosecuting counsel portrayed Winner as an existential threat to the nation, suggesting she’d caused “grave damage” and compromised national security. 

For any objective observer, it’s hard to quantify those damages; certainly, the Federal Government was embarrassed by the disclosure – caught on its heels, slow to mount a defense against Russian aggression, and intent on keeping that failure hidden from the American people. 

In June 2018 – after a year in prison – Winner pleaded guilty to a single felony count of unauthorized transmission of classified information. She was sentenced to five years and three months and has been incarcerated since.

Billie Winner-Davis, with her daughter, Reality Winner

Reality’s mother hasn’t seen her daughter, in person, since February 2020. On March 13th, the Federal facility halted all in-person visitation to mitigate the COVID-19 virus. 

“She calls when she can. It’s a little hard with my work schedule, but she tries before I go to work. She also has to fight for the phone, because she’s in a large unit, and there are only so many phones. That means standing in line and waiting,” Winner-Davis said. Some weekends, she has the good fortune to connect with Reality through video chat. “It’s good to lay eyes on her, to know she’s okay.”

Despite the prison’s attempts to keep the virus at bay, Winner tested positive in July. She reported to her mother that she had telltale symptoms – body aches, severe headache and muscle cramps. Several months later, her mother was comforted to know that she was doing well and seemingly “over it.” 

Winner is scheduled for release on November 24, 2021. In May 2021, she’ll be eligible for a supervised early-release program. Naturally, Winner’s legal team sought clemency for their client, a pardon that can only come from one person in all of the land – the President of the United States. 

“It could be this President. It could be the next President,” Winner-Davis said. “She really doesn’t have very high hopes of getting out. She feels like she’s going to be there until her release date.”

President Trump appeared to take a passing interest in Winner’s conviction when he tweeted about her on August 24, 2018: 

“I always look back at the tweet, and I use it out there on Twitter, to remind [President Trump] that it’s still very unfair. It was really cool to see that tweet, and it was good, because during her pre-trial phase, her attorneys told us not to use the word ‘unfair,’ because it might upset the Courts; and so, for Trump to use that word was amazing for us. This process has been unfair from the beginning. 

“But when you look at the tweet, you see that his intent was to get back at Jeff Sessions, who he was angry with at the time. And he was trying to say something disparaging about Hillary Clinton. He was using Reality to get at them,” she said.

As Reality’s chief champion, her mother spends untold afterwork hours writing letters, emails, and making calls to the White House and members of Congress. At best, she receives boilerplate letters in response. Worse yet, she says, is the silence. 

“That’s one of the things that has been difficult for me — feeling like Reality doesn’t have support, even from my officials here in Texas,” she said. “I write to them, and I get form letters back saying that they don’t have the authority to intervene. I’m not asking them to intervene. I’m asking them to support her. When we were going to Washington, DC for the second-year anniversary of her arrest, I wrote to a number of Senators, asking if I could have a meeting with them while I was there – and to Nancy Pelosi, as well — but I never heard from anyone.” 

She is heartened, however, by the number of people who have expressed support and empathy for her daughter, including some of those famous whistleblowers – Thomas A. Drake, Lisa Ling, Edward Snowden, and others.

Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen reached out with interest in advocating for Winner’s compassionate early release – a privilege he was afforded while serving time for his own 2018 conviction. 

Hollywood came calling, too. Winner’s mother said that a documentary is planned for early 2021. There’s also a greenlit feature film in the works.

Reality Winner’s appeal for compassionate release was denied at the November 16, 2020 hearing. Chief U.S. District Judge Randal Hall ruled that Winner had not provided the prison warden 30 days to consider a compassionate release appeal, and that her attorneys failed to present a compelling case. 

Beyond a handful of legal publishers, few news organizations covered the hearing. 

“The media just isn’t there,” Winner-Davis said. 

When Reality and her mother have the opportunity to speak, they talk about lots of things – about her daughter’s health, her perspective on prison and the law, and what the future might hold. Winner is working on a degree in sociology. She’s become a certified instructor in yoga and spin-cycling. 

Her mother expects that she’ll leverage this experience and become an advocate for criminal justice and social justice reform. She’s expressed interest in working with at-risk youths. 

What the pair haven’t spoken about is the former government contractor’s decision to disclose the information – the risk-benefit analysis she considered before she sent the classified report to The Intercept.

 “She and I have never been able to have a real conversation about this. All of our conversations are monitored,” Winner-Davis said. “There have been times when she’s mentioned that she hopes that what she did paid off in some way, you know – that it made a difference, that it made some sort of a difference.”

Winner-Davis expressed frustration that the very information Reality disclosed is still being used as political fodder, and that its veracity is being undermined by members of the United States Congress. 

“We seem to have come full circle,” she said, exasperated. “Now, they’re trying to disprove it again, trying to say that there was something malicious about the investigation itself. And I sit here, and I want to scream, ‘But the Russians did it!’ It warranted an investigation, but now they’re trying to say that the investigation itself was wrong.” 

In the meantime, her daughter serves time. 

“The only thing I’ve been fighting for this whole time is to keep her name out there, and for people to learn who she is. She really is a remarkable young woman. Her service in the Air Force, her volunteerism? You’re not going to find someone that young who has given so much. I just want people to see her for who she is,” Winner-Davis said.

“I also want people to recognize that she didn’t do any harm to her country, and to press our nation into reforming the Espionage Act. It should only be used for people who actually damage us, who trade secrets, sell secrets, and work against our country. It should not be used on people like Reality, like Edward Snowden, like Chelsea Manning. There has got to be a line where we say, ‘No, this doesn’t fit.’ Reality did not conspire against the United States of America.”

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Consider the source

The Hunter Biden laptop story was so full of holes it’s hard to imagine why the NY Post — a tabloid — made an editorial decision to pick it up. This NY Times column explores why other outlets didn’t buy into it, including another Murdoch-owned paper, the non-tabloid WSJ.

It’s interesting to look at this from a 40,000-foot level and to study how news perpetuates in an economically disparate way. If you get your news largely from free sources or social media — or if you only watch Fox News and listen to freely accessible radio pundits — you likely don’t know the problems with the story and the diligence media outlets must use to determine its veracity. But if you’re a bit more well off — enough to afford a relatively expensive subscription to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, for example — you get the bigger picture, the more complete story, the truer version of events, and access to information that has been put through a meat grinder of editorial challenges and adjudication.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The AXIOS Interview: Observations on the President and the Press

This AXIOS on HBO interview with the President is generating a lot of social media buzz this week. If you’re like me and out of the HBO loop, AXIOS kindly published it online, free of charge. Here’s the link:

https://www.axios.com/full-axios-hbo-interview-donald-trump-cd5a67e1-6ba1-46c8-bb3d-8717ab9f3cc5.html

I watched it pre-dawn, with my first three cups of coffee and a notepad for visceral scribbling. I was most interested to see how Jonathan Swan formulated his questions and delivered them, and how he “managed” the President – prone to ramblings and deflections – in order to keep the interview productive and moving forward.

At least twice, the President broke the cadence of the interview to comment on Swan’s facial expressions, accusing him of smiling or smirking. This, too, is a rhetorical trick of the President’s – to redirect attention to the questioner, often disparaging the reporter in some way. Here, he seems to imply that Swan is unserious or being cheeky. What he did not do is call Swan “nasty,” or dumb or any of his other favorite insults he seems to reserve for women journalists who ask tough questions.

Swan didn’t hesitate to wade into some turbulent waters: the Federal response to COVID-19; Ghislaine Maxwell; the President’s plans to leverage the Courts to contest the election; Federal forces descending on an American city and usurping due process by essentially kidnapping protesters and holding them without charges; Black Lives Matter and civil unrest; and about his lack of regard for the late John Lewis.

Swan even asked about the intelligence reports that suggest Russia has taken out bounties on Allied troops’ heads. The President demonstrated his incuriosity about the intel. “If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” he proclaimed.

“This one didn’t reach my desk,” he insisted. And yet it’s on his desk; it’s in his briefing, and the President didn’t even bother to bring it up for discussion during his call with Putin last week (per the White House).

Swan then probed the President about widely circulated and publicized intelligence that ties Russia to supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a shocking “whataboutism” response, the President replied, “We supplied weapons to the Taliban when they were fighting Russia. … We did that, too.”

It is stunning to see a President of the United States equivocating American troops – presumably sent to the Afghanistan mountains to combat terrorism and nation build – with Russia’s aggressive, invading forces the Taliban caused to retreat long ago.

Pressed on troop levels in Afghanistan, the President acknowledged that the numbers have gone up and gone down during his Presidency, but he insists that his mission is to nearly halve the level with which the Administration began. Swan, wanting a number and a timetable on the promise, gets the President to say the U.S. will have between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan on election day 2020.

Swan is particularly effective at getting the President to eventually answer a question. Someone on Twitter suggested that it’s because of the Aussie accent, but it’s really because he fires follow-up questions and real-time fact checks at the President. The White House Press Corps, often kept to one or two questions, don’t have that luxury. It’s too easy for the President or McEnany to just point to someone else and move on.

Throughout the interview, the President makes relentless attempts to stonewall Swan. He interrupts. He talks in circles. He deflects and heads off in tangents – often leading to topics within his comfort zone: Crowd sizes. TV ratings. And why he doesn’t get enough “credit” – from whom, he doesn’t say.

In a line of questioning may be more uncomfortable for the audience than it is for the President, Swan asked the question about his “I wish her well” remarks about Ghislaine Maxwell, the accused pimp and pedo-buddy of the late Jeffrey Epstein – both, long-time friends of the President. In response, the President suggested that Epstein may have been murdered in prison, citing no evidence to support his assertion.

What the President doesn’t want to talk about is the pandemic and the more than 159,000 dead Americans. When Swan does manage to steer the President to the topic, the President flippantly dismisses statistics, including the measurably important death-per-capita data from the United States and other developed nations. The President suggests that data is flawed.

The duo’s conversation about testing is revealing, in an emperor-lacks-clothes kind of way. The President’s obstinance about testing continues. Swan points out that test results take too long – that a test result, sometimes 10 days after the swabbing, doesn’t help the patient and it doesn’t help quell the transmission of the virus.

Weeks before the Swan interview, the Trump Administration “defunded” federal testing sites they’d set up around the country. They folded the tents, pulled the personnel, and said to those communities, “You’re on your own now.”

One of so many unforced errors made by the President during the interview, he asserted, “You can test too much,” citing unnamed sources, “the manuals” and “the books.” To his credit, Swan followed up with a question about which manuals and books he was citing – knowing, of course, that the President cannot answer the question.

The part of the interview about COVID-19 and testing will now be added to the library of videos of the President’s half-year campaign to diminish the virus, to give Americans some false sense of security, to fuel conspiracy theories about it, to play wannabe doctor and pharmacist, to endanger lives.

The national lack of ambition on testing – despite the volume of tests already performed the President prefers to cite – may be our undoing. It should go without saying that the more rapid-result testing we do, the easier it becomes to isolate the virus, identify risks, to help on-the-front lines healthcare workers and facilities be proactive rather than reactive. The path to any sort of normalcy – schools reopening, businesses bouncing back, seeing each other, touching each other, encouraging the kids to play together again, going to a restaurant, going on a date, seeing live music, attending a funeral – is paved in testing.

And we’ve blown it.

About those nearly 160,000 American deaths? The President tells Swan, “It is what it is.”

Book Publishing, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Mary L. Trump’s Book: A Review

I bought Mary L. Trump, PhD’s book, “Too Much and Never Enough” not so much because I was interested in the family dynamics of the Trump clan, but because I have an (confessed) staunch disdain for men who try to silence women, and for Presidents who make people around them sign NDAs and file frivolous lawsuits to delay and degrade every publication or opinion about him. So, when I heard that the Trump family had tied the book up in court, I pre-ordered it.

It’s a thin hardback and an easy read.

In the early chapters, she struggles with voice.

At times, Trump reminds the reader that she is a clinician, highly educated in and informed about mental health and mental disease. Occasionally, she breaks from that serious tone, injecting editorial that is biting or snarky. I’m not sure those work in her favor.

A few chapters in, she hits her stride, and the book transitions into what it wanted to be from the beginning: A highly personal memoir, with decades worth of cringe-inducing memories of sadism and cruelty that runs like sap in the Trump family tree. Knowing that, you might tend to believe that this is purely “a hit piece,” written for retribution or revenge. She is wounded – and who wouldn’t be – but it becomes evident that malice isn’t her motivation. Rather, the narrative seems to indicate a patently private person’s strange sense of duty to the public, to correct the record on her family’s biography and image, including the curated and fabricated story of her Uncle’s business acumen.

The stories of family “black sheeps,” of dramatic dis-ownings, or siblings who turn against one another for their parents’ affection or post-mortem spoils, are nothing new. But the story of the Trump family is particularly tragic, because the repercussions of their greed, cruelty, and tumult have trickled down to all of us now. They’re global.

The saddest part of this story, it seems to me, is the acknowledgement that family can be so easily fractured, and that sometimes a person can spend a lifetime thinking they play a certain role in the family – thinking they are (if not well liked, then) well-loved by other members of the family. They can carry on blindly under those assumptions for years, decades even, until one day they come to realize that they didn’t have that firm standing at all, that the affection they felt for others was not reciprocated – the unsteadying realization that “I am on my own.”

I think that must’ve been how it felt in the moment Mary Trump recounts near the end of the book – a fateful phone conversation with her grandmother, the President’s mother. It’s a gut punch.

By the end, I was surprised at how viciously the President’s immediate family and inner circle denounced his niece’s recounting of her life to date. Donald, his siblings, their children? They were raised in a culture of abuse. You’ll close this book and think, “That explains so much.” It almost makes a person feel pity for the President, for the man he came to be. Almost.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The Roof, the Roof, the Roof Is On Fire

Unlike George Floyd, who literally choked out his last words …

“Don’t kill me.”

“Momma.”

“I can’t breathe.”

… I only figuratively choke on words to chronicle this moment in our nation’s history. I feel inadequate and inarticulate. Nothing I can put to paper is profound enough. What can I write that I haven’t said before, after each injustice I’ve paid witness to in my lifetime — this life of mine that tonight feels privileged and impossibly long?

What have I not already said about the racial disparities that plague our culture? How can I, an inept bystander really, somehow define and encapsulate the festering wounds of racism and our pathetic inability to destroy it, once and for all?

I think I choke on these words because it’s not my story to tell. I think on these matters, as a white person who knows that I can go about my days — somedays even myself breaking laws — without that omnipresent fear that others will inherently aim to target me, harass me, disparage me, or even kill me, I might be best to shut the fuck up and listen, or better yet, to act as a conduit, a megaphone for others who know these atrocities firsthand.

I need to do a better job at making sure those stories are told. That is my mission and vow.

I may be better equipped to speak about protests. A child of the 60s and 70s, I have been witness to Vietnam-era rebellions, Los Angeles, Ferguson, and all the modern-era injustices that have led people to the streets to speak to their rage, to show the world their anguish.

I have myself marched, when there seemed like no other way to break through. This is all too familiar to me.

Tragically, rather than acknowledging their numbers and hearing their cries – rather than listening to their plight and empathizing with their anger – too many in this country will look at anecdotal property destruction and discount these protesters’ voices, wholesale. They will criticize them, or worse, tsk-tsk them and just move on about their days.

I sat up all night again, watching live feeds of fires burning in businesses, a news network under siege, tear gas canisters flying, and I think back to a demonstration I took part in years ago. I found myself side-by-side with a perfectly mild-mannered and otherwise peaceful, law-abiding person, who was so caught up in the moment, so unable to tamp down his rage, that he screamed out, “Burn it all down!”

That’s what rage does to human beings. That’s what being unheard, for years, decades, centuries, does to us.

As the day breaks, American cities will awaken to carnage today. They will find their neighbors and friends nursing wounds, glass on the streets, fires still smoldering. Talking heads on TV and social-media commenters will ponder, “Why have they done this? What purpose does it serve?”

They don’t understand it, because they haven’t tried to understand it.

I think about erupting rage and wonder how this anger is any less valid than the grievances that inspired this nation to elect Donald J. Trump as our 45th President? So often I’ve heard from Trump voters who say they voted for him to “drain the swamp,” to “shake things up.”

What they really meant was, “Burn it all down.”

The thing is, when you have that level of power – as a member of Congress or as President – burning it down proves rather easy and clean. No muss, no fuss. You don’t need to take the streets. K Street comes to you. You meet in chambers at the Capitol and with pen strokes, you dismantle it. You exploit that rage that sent you there to undermine law enforcement, intelligence agencies, the very system of justice that governs our land. You quietly leverage the courts to take mere access to healthcare away from millions who desperately need it. You slickly undermine public education. You put a price tag on the environment and sell it to the highest bidder. You champion war criminals and demote military heroes. You strike down laws intended to protect workers and people from businesses that will harm them and make them sick. You enrich your friends and starve the rest.

You challenge long-established Constitutional laws, because you can, and because you feel it’s what you were elected and emboldened to do.

You see a plague coming and you shrug it off, knowing that it might kill millions, especially in the cities for which you have disdain, cities that didn’t vote for you.

You burn it all down while surrounding yourself with blue-suited middle-aged white men cheering you on, never getting any grime on your hands at all. It’s all disgustingly dignified.

But the People don’t have that power. They’ve got to get their hands dirty.

The People don’t have those commemorative Executive Order-signing pens. They only have the streets. They only have their rage. They have only year after year of screaming into a void. And, so, they want to burn it all down the only way they know how, until the powerful listen, until they command their attention, until the change they demand comes.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The President’s “Keyboard Warriors” Take to the Streets

I saw this clip when the reporter first posted it — taken at some of sort of a rally. I can’t be sure whether it was a gathering just to celebrate the President or to make some sort of statement about the state of affairs on Long Island, within reach of the COVID-19 hotbed zone, New York City.

I’ve come to expect this kind of vitriol. It’s not new. Some years ago when I was dispatched to photograph a protest/counter-protest of Trump’s speech at the Coast Guard Academy commencement, I took some of this kind of flack myself from several individuals who walked alongside the protest marchers and screamed at the group. To me, they yelled “fake news” and some misogynistic nonsense that I shrugged off at the time. It’s gotten much worse in the years since, with reporters harassed, doxxed, physically assaulted, their gear ripped from their hands and destroyed.

The Constitutionally protected Free Press no longer feels very free. It feels like targets have been painted on their backs.

When this clip first published on Twitter, I had a couple of thoughts: First, note how brave the local TV reporter is as he walks through the frothy-mouthed crowd. See his calm as he navigates individuals/superspreaders yelling in his face and refusing to respect any physical distancing.

I thought, look at how they scream at him, even in front of their young, impressionable children. Look at how they seem to have lost their damned minds, becoming people I doubt they are in everyday situations. I bet they don’t behave like this at family reunions, nor at the workplace, nor in their neighborhoods, nor in their PTA meetings.

I was also hyperaware of the irony of this. Here, we have a reporter dispatched by the local Long Island TV station, to report on their event. Had he and others not been there, they would have been accused of ignoring their plights, blackballing their voices. How many times have you heard from the President’s most ardent supporters, “You won’t hear this on the mainstream media …”

And yet, this is about as MSM as you can get, the guy I bet everyone in the crowd knew by name and face, because he’s on their TV screens every weeknight. Local TV news is about as close to the community as you can get outside of a small-town paper. It’s not just “mainstream,” it’s “Main Street.”

Here he was to capture their moment, to take their story to the airwaves, to interview them and get their perspectives.

And what do they do? They threaten him, scold him, verbally shit all over the guy. They terrorize him.

I shared the clip on social media, and I blamed the President for this vitriol and hate. After all, it’s his words, verbatim, that they practically spit at the TV newsman. Listen carefully, and you can hear them parrot our President.

Turns out, I was right to put the blame at the President’s feet, because in the middle of the night — when the President should either be sleeping, meeting with his entourage at Camp David, or thinking long and hard about how to save lives in the throes of pandemic — the President shared this clip, too. Not once, but twice. That tells me he’s quite proud of these people, this behavior, and his ability to manipulate masses of his “keyboard warriors,” to the point that they have become something other than themselves.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The White House Task Force Briefings Should No Longer Be Televised

Since the creation of the White House task force, and the President’s naming of his Vice President, Mike Pence, as its mealymouthed leader, there has been a steady drumbeat from media critics who think the Press should tune out.

They’ve argued that the President has done more harm than good by holding these nearly daily on-camera events. I wholeheartedly disagreed, primarily because he’s the President, and without a functioning Press Secretary – the new one refuses to work with us, like her predecessor – these are precious opportunities to carry the President’s messages to the American people, allowing them to judge for themselves the content, and to question him, challenge him, and speak truth to power, as is our role and responsibility.

I have held that belief for all these exhausting weeks, even when the President missed every opportunity to express genuine, sincere empathy for those who are sick, the tens of thousands who have died horrific deaths, or to their families who are forced to grieve in silence, alone.

I believed we had to cover the briefings even when it became clear that the President’s posturing would always be to deflect criticism, to shirk responsibility, and to pick petty fights with Governors who have been desperate for information, gear, equipment and financial aid – desperate to try to save their constituents lives.

I felt we should still cover the briefings even when the President would openly question his own appointees to the task force – infectious-disease experts who come equipped with data and analyses that he flippantly disregards in real time.

Even when critics cried, “He’s using these as substitute campaign rallies,” I still felt we have to cover them. To ignore them would be irresponsible and a dereliction of our duty, right?

I, along with so many of my colleagues in news, have cringed when he’s used the precious time to admonish journalists, especially women reporters, accusing anyone who asks a pointed, legitimate question of being “fake news” or worse. The tough-guy act feels like a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it’s textbook Orwellian; if you can convince people not to believe anything, they won’t believe the truth about you. The other purpose, I believe, is to create audio and video clips for conservative media outlets to run, showing the President “fighting back” – macho and chest thumping.

I suppose with some people who are firmly planted in the President’s corner, no matter his egregious unforced errors, it works to get their blood boiling, their anger stoked. It juices up the base.

A hard-boiled German who’s been around, even I welled up the day the President boasted about how great the ratings were for his briefings, as New York City and other communities across the nation zipped up hundreds of body bags in that single day. The lack of empathy was shocking, gutting really. It made me question if we’ll live through this – as individuals and as a nation.

Admittedly, as the time has passed, I have questioned the approach of the Press sitting before him. I believed that if they could simply target their questions to the experts and keep them keenly focused on the public health and safety information Americans need to know, that it would somehow keep these briefings from veering off course.

I suggested to broadcasters that they factor in a longer delay so that they could digitally filter out anything that was overtly false or potentially harmful to the viewing public. None of that has worked.

The President went on to use the briefings to recklessly promote a drug that hadn’t been rigorously tested through clinical trials as a treatment for COVID-19 infection. Despite warnings across the globe that its use was linked to heart failure and stroke in these cases, he continued to promote it. Lupus patients suddenly couldn’t get their prescriptions filled for the drug, putting their very lives at risk while the President continued to promote it. We later learned that he has a financial stake in the pharmaceutical company that makes it.

Donald J. Trump also used taxpayer dollars to produce a campaign video, which he shamelessly played during one notorious briefing, perking up the ears of watchdog agencies. He’s defied social/physical distance rules established by the White House Correspondents Association, designed to keep the Press and the President himself safe from infection during these daily meetings. He’s repeatedly invited pet network OANN into the room in defiance of these very rules, allowing its “reporters” to pitch him softball, seemingly planned and scripted questions designed to stroke the President’s ego and disparage political opponents. It’s right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.

I have been hyperaware of the lack of real leadership on display here. A leader, even in cases of notable accomplishments and success, reflects back and thinks: “How could we have done even better?” There’s no introspection by the President of the United States. He is incapable of it.

And still – even with all this in our wake – I was of the mind that the Press had to broadcast and cover these briefings, because he’s the President of the United States, and it is our duty to shine lights on him whenever we have access, and especially when we don’t.

But that’s all changed for me now. I have come around to the position the critics have taken – that we should no longer broadcast these briefings in real time. My professional opinion changed when the President used last weeks’ time before the American people to encourage the protesters who have taken the streets – some dressed as if they’re going to war, some sporting swastika and other antisemitic symbols, others with Confederate flags – to defy the very orders his own task force established. For weeks, the President, the Vice President, the doctors, and other members of the Administration have stood before us preaching the importance of following the guidelines and reading from lists of things that the President said we should all be grateful for – Federally supplied personal protection equipment, respirators, financial aid, military vessels and personnel, field hospitals, short-lived testing sites, and more.

Now, the President and the Vice President are lauding the protesters, empathizing with their “cabin fever,” and refusing to admonish their reckless disregard for the health and safety of not just “the others” – their fellow American citizens – but their own health and that of their own families. It overtly demonstrates that the President and the Vice President have not taken their roles seriously, that they haven’t even bought into the guidelines they’ve established, and that they do not care how many Americans will die as a result of their politicking.

There’s a Willie Nelson song that goes, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.” The White House Task Force briefings had the potential to do some really good things – to inform the public, to help keep us all safe. They haven’t risen to the occasion.

Legitimate news organizations should shut off the lights and remove the cameras from the briefing room. Send in your reporters, but cover the briefings straight, giving no room for the President to make an on-camera mockery out of them and us.

The public-servant doctors on the task force should take a different approach, too. It’s time to “go rogue” and speak directly to the American people without the President’s political filter. It’s long overdue. Our nation is depending on you.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

On the Bias: Puritanical Headline Outrage and considering sources

By Gretchen A. Peck

Criticism of the Press is sometimes warranted. Let’s begin this observation about news with that fundamental agreement. Bias is “a thing” – inherent in language’s DNA, in every single word choice – and it is the publisher’s, editor’s and journalist’s job to choose: Manage bias, or give it free rein?

There’s a niche phenomenon in news criticism that feels fledgling this year: Puritanical headline outrage, I’ll call it.

While it has been the legacy of newspapers to incorporate quotations into headlines, today’s arm-chair news critics declare war with titles over quotations or paraphrases without context – for example, when The New York Times ran this outrage-stoking headline: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”

In fact, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, the President gave a statement in which he did just that. Of course, anyone who hasn’t lived the hermit life for the past three decades of Trump – the man and the brand – knows that this message is counter to what the President has “advocated for” in the past and present.

A segment of readers seethed over the headline, suggesting that it was biased, and that it provided the President with a megaphone to perpetuate a disingenuous message, by way of the big-font top-of-the-fold headline. Even members of the media said that headline – on top of other such grievances with the newspaper – inspired them to cancel their subscriptions and call for others to do the same.

Today’s (self-appointed) Headline Editors, working from their homes and phone displays, expect news publishers to give broad context in headlines, to tell the full story to readers, in order to remove any ambiguity about the content from the outset.

Could The New York Times’ headline writer have chosen any number of other headline options with 30 characters or fewer?

Certainly.

But when nearing the witching hour of an on-press deadline, sometimes we choose what is expeditious and relevant. Sometimes the moment – the horror of a mass shooting, arguably – calls for an aspirational approach, the common denominator, the sliver of hope, a message that transcends the politics and the politician.

Critics decried that this particular headline was by design, that it was an editorial choice to somehow show favoritism to the President of the United States. This is a theory fundamentally at odds with the very mission of news people and newspapers.

I have to believe that some of this “headline outrage” has more to do with the way people read and process information they read online today. We are a nation of headline surfers. We’ve studied this data.

Today, we viscerally react to headlines and often comment about the content before ever reading beyond it. Naturally, readers who rely so heavily – even entirely – on headlines would want them to tell the whole story. It’s a lofty expectation fueled by illiterate laziness.

To its credit, The New York Times took the criticism to heart and even offered an explanation and apology to readers. It showed that the newspaper was listening, at least.

Let’s use this example – of a newspaper “managing” bias – in contrast to what occurred on FOX News on the morning of Friday, November 22, 2019.

For 53 minutes during a call-in to the live broadcast, the President of the United States led viewers on a rhetorical rollercoaster, a verbal tirade that included a litany of bullshit that would keep fact checkers tasked for the next two days to sort through. The New York TimesLinda Qiu did it, same day: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/us/politics/trump-fox-and-friends-fact-check.html

It is true that the FOX & Friends hosts tried to haplessly interject, but the President steamrolled, and the producers were AWOL.

But they had to see it coming at FOX News, right? This Tasmanian Devil of an interview couldn’t have taken anyone by surprise in the planning meetings or during the live broadcast. They had to expect that the President would behave in this manner. His rally riffs are notorious, and he has a pattern of doing this on past call-ins to the network.

Still, the producers – and to a certain extent those talking heads who had to endure it through gritted teeth and earnest expressions – collectively made an “editorial” decision to give bias “free reign.”

One of the foundational tenets of journalism: Consider your source.

 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

The Story Behind the Photo

Impeach

I shot this photo in Washington, DC, on the occasion of the first Women’s March, the day after the inauguration of the 45th President, Donald J. Trump. Shortly before this was taken, I found myself in a sea of women flooding a metro station, politely and patiently ascending the escalator and staircase that spit them out closer to the Mall. The mood was upbeat, unified. They sang and cheered. They chanted. They poured into the streets and moved toward the Mall. The streets near the event stage were already packed—women, men, children, arm-in-arm shoulder-to-shoulder.

It was on that walk toward the Capitol that I took this photo. It was one of the few images from the day that I printed and framed. I’ve kept it on one of my desks. People who’ve come through my office may have thought it an endorsement of impeachment. I did not frame it for that reason, though even back then, I had an educated, odds-were-with-me expectation that a Trump Presidency would be disastrous and untoward. Anyone who watched him for 25+ years, as a unethical businessman and epic misogynist, knew it wouldn’t end well for the American people.

It seemed likely that his Presidential fuck-ups and conduct would be so monumental—unsuited to the job that he is—that impeachment might one day mire and divide the nation. And here we are.

Rather, I framed the photo because it felt particularly iconic for the day. It was more about the women marching than the man many were protesting.

The sign the woman crafted is a bubble-style mailing envelope, cut and splayed open. I know this because the night before the March, I’d followed the Maps app to a local office supplies store, where women had overrun the shop in search of poster board and Sharpies. Everyone in the store, it seemed, had traveled to DC with the hopes of locking down those creative supplies once in town. The store ran dry of sign-making stuff, necessitating the creative use of the large mailing envelopes for sign media. They started selling like wildfire. I even bought one. During the March, I wore mine sandwich-board style. It read: “1st Amendment Guardian” in plain black Sharpie.

The woman in my photo wrote IMPEACH on her splayed-open mailing envelope and walked with confidence toward Congress. Maybe she felt prophetic. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. And here we are.

News & Publishing

Preparing for 2020: News Organizations Ramp Up for an Election Cycle Certain to be Dynamic, Fast-Paced and Combative

By Gretchen A. Peck

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the press received some rather harsh criticism about its national coverage. Type in “press failures of 2016,” and Google will unkindly deliver a long list of critical analysis about the media and how it handled the Trump vs. Clinton battle for the White House.

Disillusioned voters blamed the press for a failure to present Trump as a viable nominee, let alone as their likely future president. Some declared that journalists missed the story of the Trump voter entirely.

That type of criticism—that the press had missed the Trump story—wasn’t entirely fair, according to Peter Wallsten, senior politics editor at the Washington Post.

Read more at:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/preparing-for-2020-news-organizations-ramp-up-for-an-election-cycle-certain-to-be-dynamic-fast-paced-and-combative/