What if the news really is fake?

This Monday's Frank Church Institute conference at BSU ("DEMOCRACY in an AGE of ANXIETY: Russian Intrusion, Chinese Confrontation, Populist Disruption") including an array of presentations, panels, and a keynote address from former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul (“From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia”). Jeanette and I went to the panel moderated by Dr. Greg Raymond, "Threats from Russia, Challenges from Populism," with Rob Berschinski, Senior VP for Policy at Human Rights First, and James Kirchick, Visiting Fellow, Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, and one of the afternoon breakout sessions. We split up for the evening, me to McFaul's keynote, her to an Indigenous People's Day celebration.

The afternoon breakouts "Reporting in the Era of Fake News," "Whose Data Is It Anyway?" and "Can Democracy Exist in a Post-Privacy World?" Given the time and opportunity, I would have liked to have attended all three, but life imposed a choice. We went to the one on Fake News, with Betsy Russell, Boise Bureau Chief of the Idaho Press, and the fellow from the morning's Russia panel, James Kirchick.

The attendance at the day's events was strongly bimodal: lots of BSU students (and faculty sprinkled in), naturally, for free and interesting stuff right there at the Student Union, and lots of older folks unburdened by a job all day Monday. The interest in the Fake News breakout was at least twice the capacity of the "Berquist Lounge." The older folks mostly got there early (I grabbed front row seats) and it was quickly SRO in the back for all the students who weren't as prompt. There was talk of finding a larger room that did not materialize, and the standees dissipated, leaving the field to the white hairs, somewhat unfortunately.

I fancy myself a savvy consumer of information, and if you're reading my blog, I imagine you are one, too. We could both be wrong, of course. With our new galactic overlords specializing in disinformation, and cheerfully accepting help from around the world to amplify it, how do we know what's what? I know Betsy well, and respect her work and inimitable coverage of Idaho politics, during her years at the (Spokane, WA) Spokesman-Review, and now the Idaho Press. "Know your reporter" is one answer.

Russell started by pointing out that contrary to what you may have heard, there are plenty of real media sources, and many of them have enjoyed an economic resurgence of late, thanks in part to the fake news machine. (The Idaho Press has seen subscriptions up 40% in the last two years, more about an effective strategy for local focus, I suspect.) Kirchik was there to talk about the fake news, what with the title of the session and all, and to cast aspersions, it seemed. On my first page of notes, right out of the gate, I wrote "This guy goes 'both sides' pretty easily — am I dreaming? Am I gaslighted?"

Since he was out here in the hinterlands, he started by saying a little something about where he's coming from. The District of Columbia, which voted "96% for Hillary Clinton" in 2016. (Do they get an Electoral College vote? Yes, they get three electors, just like the seven least populous states. More votes cast than in Wyoming.)

That's a remarkable number, worth checking. I see from multiple sources (here's one) that the vote share for Clinton/Kaine was actually 90.86%. Odd that he'd lead off the session with an erroneous (and easily checked) statistic. I see that "Write-ins" garnered 2% and the Libertarian and "DC Statehood Green" parties split 3%, leaving 4% for Trump/Pence. In other words, he reported the percentage who didn't vote for Trump as the vote "for Clinton." It seems a minor point, but it says something about his attention to detail, at least, and his bias, I suspect. (Elsewhere, I see he's labeled as a neoconservative, and supposedly supported Clinton, even though he hardly stood up for that in this session.)

First question, from Lisa Hecht, "how do we reclaim some of the oxygen for important issues, and how do we get out of our lizard brains?"

Russell's answer reflected her own work: focus on local issues. Kirchik started by saying "understanding the narcissism is the key," and went off into Trumpian weeds, not addressing the question. Regarding Saudi Arabia, he said it was "unrealistic" to expect we'll break off relations with the kingdom over Jamal Khashoggi's killing. Just one journalist, after all, sorry.

Question about Christopher Leonard's book, Kochland," and the "block and tackle" strategy, described in the interview by Terry Gross as "the Koch agenda with Trump in the White House," to "block legislation that Trump wants that the Koch brothers don't want and then help Trump tackle projects or legislation that the Kochs support." Leonard said Charles has gotten probably 98 of 99 things on his Christmas list (while we were distracted trying to understand the narcissism). Kirchik passed on the (rambling, off-topic) question, Russell recommended Jane Mayer's reporting on the subject of the Koch family.

Kirchik went on to deride the "self-valorization" of journalists in this country. War correspondents are out on the edge, sure, but in this country it's a pretty easy job. He expressed contempt for opinion columnists who he thinks get too much attention. He's "bored" by all the anti-Trump invective. (Crisis? What crisis?) He decried how the national media are making money, while local journalism is drying up, went after Jim Acosta for the second time, unprompted. Acosta really gets his goat for some reason. "I'm a little cynical," he admitted, superfluously.

Since it hadn't been answered the first time, Hecht brought up that lizard brain question again, and Kirchik answered by saying "you have to pay for what you want," again not adding any light.

Somehow we came around to the Special Counsel's investigation, which Kirchik allowed was "not wrong, in and of itself," but... irrelevant? Said the Steele dossier was "paid for by the DNC," which doesn't quite cover the story, any more than boiling it all down to Trump winning "fair and square." Say what, now? He thinks "leaks" are a really bad look. Maybe if we just went with the gaslighting, we'd be fine? Ukraine "doesn't look good," he allowed, but it was based on hearsay? Never mind the subsequent admission by Trump himself. "It's very opaque" he said near the end, and I was wondering what the absolute eff?

Who is this guy? His eponymous domain styles him as "Author, journalist and foreign correspondent," which I would n.e.v.e.r have guessed from the panel discussion or this breakout. His main beat is LGBTQ issues, I gather, although his latest book (out in 2017) darkly presages "The End of Europe; Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age" and his About page has a ton of mainstream media listed for publishing credits.

Lately he's been sharing his opinions, too. One "recent" link off his site is to the Washington Post, Why are George Soros and Charles Koch collaborating on a U.S.-bashing think tank? Props for this pithy takedown of the nascent competitor in the think tank business: "Think of the Quincy Institute as the Tulsi Gabbard of think tanks, a bizarre amalgam of far-left and far-right ideas, united by a shared isolationism and aversion to America acting as a force for good."

Odd that Kirchik had nothing to say about the question that was raised about Kochland, though. He's "bored" and cynical about other people's opinions, but full of his own.

All in all, the juxtaposition of Russell, with her determined coverage of the often mundane state legislature day in and day out, and Kirchick's freewheeling neocon think tankery, and his criticism hearkening back to his "journalist" roots for credibility, made for quite a meta-breakout on the topic, "Reporting in the Age of Fake News."

Tom von Alten, October 18, 2019