emptywheel_02

WaPo Cleans Up a False Michael McFaul Allegation about RT

As I noted in my last post, I’m going to do some posts on the whackjob article WaPo published over the weekend, magnifying the assertions of some researchers (one group of which remain anonymous) alleging that outlets like Naked Capitalism are really Russian propaganda outlets.

In this post, I want to look at a correction the WaPo made after it was posted for a day. The original story featured this claim from former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, said he was struck by the overt support that RT and Sputnik expressed for Trump during the campaign, even using the #CrookedHillary hashtag pushed by the candidate.

In the interim, RT appears to have contacted WaPo,refuting the claims in the article (many of the other outlets claimed to be Russian propaganda outlets have yet to be contacted by the WaPo). A paragraph has been added, incorporating a statement from RT’s head of communications.

Now the McFaul claim looks like this:

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, said he was struck by the overt support that Sputnik expressed for Trump during the campaign, even using the #CrookedHillary hashtag pushed by the candidate.

And the article includes this correction:

Correction: A previously published version of this story incorrectly stated that Russian information service RT had used the “#CrookedHillary” hastag [sic] pushed by then-Republican candidate Donald Trump. In fact, while another Russian information service Sputnik did use this hashtag, RT did not.

The article itself didn’t state that. McFaul did. The article simply paraphrased his claim.

Note, it appears people responding to RT have used the hashtag, which might be easy to confuse if you didn’t look too closely. But then, so do people responding to WaPo tweets.

A proper correction would instead say something like this:

A leading expert on Russia, former Ambassador to Russia and current Stanford University Political Science professor Michael McFaul, claimed that both RT and Sputnik have used the #CrookedHillary hashtag. When we fact checked his claim after publication and after RT refuted the claim, we found the claim to be false, with respect to RT and have altered his reported claim accordingly.

Of course, that would entail admitting that some of the most celebrated experts on Russia — to say nothing of the ones at PropOrNot hiding behind anonymity — get sloppy with their accusations. WaPo chose not to do that though, instead suggesting they, not their chosen expert, had made the error.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

putin

According to PropOrNot’s Conspiratorial Criteria, WaPo Is a US Intelligence Outlet

I hope to have more to say about the whackjob story the WaPo peddled over the weekend about the shady “PropOrNot” effort to identify and blacklist Russian influenced media outlets, which according to the anonymous people behind it include Naked Capitalism, TruthDig, Consortium News, and Truthout. In the meantime, I’ve put some resources below (and am working on a page curating links about all the claimed Russian plots this year, credible and no).

But I wanted to look at how WaPo itself stacks up according to one of the criteria laid out in WaPo’s “news” piece on propaganda.

Here’s how the WaPo’s propaganda hunters identify propaganda outlets directed by the Russian state:

The researchers used Internet analytics tools to trace the origins of particular tweets and mapped the connections among social-media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages. Identifying website codes sometimes revealed common ownership. In other cases, exact phrases or sentences were echoed by sites and social-media accounts in rapid succession, signaling membership in connected networks controlled by a single entity. [my emphasis]

One of the clues, these researchers say, is to ID common ownership between known state entities and other media outlets.

That got printed in the Washington Post, a media outlet owned by Jeff Bezos. Bezos is an oligarch currently worth around $62 billion dollars, largely through his ownership of almost 17% of Amazon’s stock.

And Amazon is a US government contractor, providing cloud services to the Intelligence Community.

In other words, WaPo and the Intelligence Community’s cloud contractor share a common owner, one of the world’s richest oligarchs, the kind of link that if Bezos were a well-connected Russian oligarch would easily mark the news outlet as propaganda.

I’m not making that argument. Thus far, at least, WaPo’s editorial focus doesn’t seem to have changed in the Bezos era (aside from decisions about coverage of DC areas news). It’d be hard to distinguish an IC-directed editorial slant from what the Neocon WaPo editorial page has had for a decade and a half under Fred Hiatt. WaPo’s news, on the other hand, has continued to provide a range of both great and questionable reporting; its reporters are roughly about as tied into the IC as the NYT.

In other words, WaPo remains what it was before an oligarch with financial ties to the intelligence community bought it. But we know that reading its content with a critical view, not by mapping out perceived and real connections. Doing that mapping would mark the WaPo as a clear government propaganda outlet that it is not.

This kind of conspiracy theorizing gets dangerous quickly. Even the WaPo — especially the WaPo — cannot afford such games.

Critiques of PropOrNot

  • Matthew Ingram judges that the effort to expand known Russian outlets to a global conspiracy gets out of hand.
  • Max Blumenthal examines some of the funding and past politics of those involved in campaign.
  • Hannah Gais examines PropOrNot’s weird definition of propaganda and (in an update) wonders whether its secretive team has ties to Ukraine.
  • Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald map out how sketchy the PropOrNot group is.
  • Matt Taibbi notes that the left has become as conspiratorial as the right traditionally has been.

Responses from those blacklisted

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-1-49-54-pm

Ari Fleischer Calls for a Return of Jeff Gannon

Remember Jeff Gannon? He was the gay sex worker who invented a news outlet that joined the White House on daily press passes for two years. He would routinely bail press secretaries Ari Fleischer or Scott McClellan out of tough jams. He was (literally) exposed after he asked President Bush a question about working with Senate Democrats that invoked a fake Rush Limbaugh attack on Harry Reid and had the punch line, “How are you going to work – you’ve said you are going to reach out to these people – how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?” People started looking into him, his media outlet, and the graphic advertisements for him on line to understand why such a prop was part of the White House press corps. That led to discoveries that White House visitor logs showed him not checking out overnight (though Gannon denied any sleepovers) and allegations of plagiarism.

In short, Gannon is an example of the kind of poor vetting that happens with a press office tries to set up more puff coverage for itself.

Well, Ari Fleischer wants Gannon back.

Less than two months ago, Fleischer (who was investigated for his role in the leak of Valerie Plame’s CIA identity) argued, of Trump’s threat to jail Hillary, “Winning candidates don’t threaten to put opponents in jail. Presidents don’t threaten prosecution of individuals. Trump is wrong on this.”

A month later he attempted a last minute, chronologically-challenged self-rehabilitation, claiming he would not vote for Trump.

I was supposed to be a delegate to the GOP convention, but I decided not to go. I’d vote for Trump, but I wasn’t going to sing his praises. It felt rude to go to Cleveland and say negative things about him on the air. I watched from home, and I said at the time that I still wanted him to win but doubted he could.

Then Trump lost control of himself and his message. He veered recklessly off track, attacking an American judge for his Mexican heritage, criticizing a war hero’s family, questioning the legitimacy of the election and otherwise raising questions about his judgment. If this race were about change, Clinton or policy, Trump could win it. But he made it about himself. Because he is one of the most unpopular people ever to run for president, that was a big mistake.

[snip]

I will vote for Republicans up and down the ballot. But when it comes to the presidency, I’m going to leave my ballot blank.

Now Ari’s back, calling on the Trump White House to admit more Jeff Gannons.

The briefing room itself, the place where reporters sit, and the adjacent space in which they are provided offices reflect the power of the mainstream press, based largely on the media-consuming habits of the American people from decades ago. The Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News, for example, sit in front-row seats that have their names on them. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR sit right behind them. While approximately 750 reporters hold White House credentials, the briefing room holds 49 seats, and they are occupied overwhelmingly by mainstream media reporters, with barely any assigned to the new dot-com world.

The White House press secretary used to decide who got what seats, but this authority was given to the White House Correspondents Association in the middle of the George W. Bush administration. Nothing prohibits the incoming administration from taking it back. The valuable West Wing real estate occupied by the White House press corps isn’t the property of the press. It belongs to the U.S. government.

Note, this seems to be an outdated notion, as outlets like Yahoo, HuffPo, Politico, and Buzzfeed are respected members of the White House press corps.

Ari goes on to suggest the dot-com problem is really an ideological one.

It isn’t only Trump who is complaining. A September Gallup poll showed that trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history. An October Pew poll showed that only 5% of the public report they have a “great deal” of confidence in the news media, while 61% have “no confidence” or “not much confidence,” a level surpassed only by the low regard the public has for elected officials.

Reporters are aware of these surveys, but they don’t change. They remain mostly liberal and largely made up of the same elites who couldn’t imagine Mr. Trump winning the nomination, let alone the presidency.

Interjection: it pains me, because I graduated from the same elementary school as Fleischer, that he doesn’t realize that if only 5% of the public has confidence in the press, then the problem is not that they are too liberal or are mean to Donald Trump. Here’s Ari again:

Too many live in a bubble in which they talk mainly to similar-minded journalists. They fail to understand that the combination of ideological bias and the loss of public confidence makes them vulnerable to the changes President Trump might seek.

In every era, the nation needs a fair and vigilant press to check the power of the president. Presidents might not like it, but it serves the country well. The daily briefing by the press secretary has long been a TV show, not a serious briefing, but it is still worth the effort. The mainstream media have a role to play, and so do a lot of other outlets. But when the press is too liberal or unfair, the media themselves put what they do at risk.

I don’t know what changes President-elect Trump will make, but he has extraordinary latitude. If he decides to go around the press entirely, abolish the daily briefing, give seats to different reporters, appoint a combative press secretary, or not take a press pool with him to dinner, the reason he’ll be able to get away with it is because the mainstream media lost the trust of the American people.

The push for the White House to reclaim authority granted to WHCA around the time Gannon was exposed is the most ironic aspect of this call from Fleischer.

But the utter lack of self-awareness is the most important.

After all, one of key reasons no one trusts the media anymore is because the media’s credulity about Iraq War claims — helped along by “combative press secretary” Ari Fleischer — led to their discredit. It’s not so much no one trusts the media because they are liberal, to the extent that is true. It has more to do with the fact that the last Republican Administration to inhabit the White House did so much to turn the press into willing collaborators.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

trump-romney-car

When Trump Brought Romney To Heel, or Further Adventures in the Cabinet of Deplorables

trump-romney-carKarma is a bitch, or so it is said. I think it is currently. Back in the day, Mittens was famous for being such a cheapskate cheeseball (yeah, despite the car elevator, which seems quaint now compared to Trump’s ostentatiousness) that he loaded the family dog into a small box coffin mounted to the top of the family station wagon to go on family vacations.

The dog was named Seamus, Mittens was an anus, and the incident became famous. But the long ago incident dogged Romney in the 2012 election. Sometimes, things come back to bite you in the ass.

Welp, here we are deep in 2016 and that dog bites Mitten man story is back. Romney, who seems a decent chap in relation to the current Cabinet of Deplorables under consideration by Team Transition Trump, is suddenly – supposedly – under consideration for a Cabinet post. Reportedly the Secretary of State slot, but possibly others as well.

But, wait, is Mitt Romney on the Trump Christmas Card List, much less cabinet appointment list?

Seems hard to square since Mittens was there ripping the Donald a new anus as recently as last March. But that was then, and this is now. And…..now…..the major media is all agog that the Trumpeter could be soooo rational and awesome as to be assembling the vaunted “Team of Rivals”. Here is everybody’s favorite Mark Halperin replacement stooge, Chris Cillizza of WaPo’s “The Fix”, milking the mad cow for every drop he can:

Again, this would, largely, run counter to how Trump ran his presidential campaign. But that would also make picking Romney all the more powerful a symbol. Campaigns are one thing, Trump would be saying, but being president is another. I want to be surrounded by the best people for the job — no matter what we said about each other in the past.

This is, of course, the whole “Team of Rivals” concept that garnered President Obama so much good press in his own transition period back in late 2008. Trump has further to go — a lot further to go — than Obama did to heal the rifts within his own party and answer doubts about his readiness to do the job to which he was elected. But the Romney meeting is a step in the right direction. Getting Romney to sign on would be an even bigger one.

This is, of course, a boatload of steaming shit. Hey, it is the Cillizza Fix, what did you expect? There are a plethora of others in the major media, including cable, deep diving into the same ridiculous bunk.

Take a look at who Trump has signed on to officially so far for his chosen team: Mike Flynn, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Steve Bannon. Notice anything in common there? Perhaps near insane levels of bigotry, hatred and ostracization of others? Gannon may seem the most inert, but that is wrong, he is just the least known outside of the annals of white neo-Nazi Breitbart nationalism. But they are all of a core.

So, let us be honest, will the Senate Judiciary Committee put up any real roadblock to a dyed in the wool unreconstructed racist like Jeff Sessions? Hahahaha, no, of course not. Republicans own the SJC, and even the Dems will ultimately give in to Sessions’ nomination. They will put up a nominal “stern questioning” as DiFi has already so gallantly promised, and then they will cave completely.

Will discerning Republicans with morals object to Sessions’ nomination? Hell no. The single most quirky and sometimes actually moral GOP member of SJC, Jeff Flake, has already strongly and early come out in favor of Beauregard’s nomination. If you know SJC, this is over, and welcome to unreconstructed racist Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions as AG.

The point is that Trump is the racist bigot he has always promised to be. Do NOT buy in to the cloying clickbait rationalizing and normalizing pablum of the main and cable media. They already know they are under siege from Trump, and are already cowering in the midst. The media we ought be able to count on are already “asking questions” about what they will do, while they do nothing to stop the nonsense. It is already a stunning abdication, as if the performance during the election were not proof enough.

So, what does Trump’s meeting with Mitt Romney Saturday really mean?

That Trump is reasonable and might let Mittens, who insulted the hell out of Trump not long ago, be one of his key Cabinet members?

cxla1tsveaap5kiHahahaha, no. Don’t be foolish. This is a staged clownshow for the idiot media who, of course, are lapping it up. Secretary of State for Mittens? Hahahahaha, not likely, Trump is not that gracious, forgiving or intelligent. Heck, Mittens had to carry his own shoes through TSA, all by himself. If the Trumpalo wants you, that is not how it happens.

No, what is going on here is that Trump is bringing Romney, who insulted him and disrespected him, to heel. Like a dog. Chris Christie, who supplicated and humiliated himself over the better part of a year to support Trump, was sent packing like he had the plague. That was only because Christie had slighted the son-in-law’s father in the past.

Romney fired all his guns in anger in a direct broadside against Trump himself. Sure, yep, totally, Trump will now make Mittens Secretary of State.

Probably ought roll with that meme media members. Uh huh. Trump is taking you, and Mittens, on a ride if you think Romney is getting any significant policy post like SOS. Nope. Oh, but the way, Ted Cruz isn’t either. Give it a rest.

[The graphic at the top, which is totally awesome, is by the one and only TWolf, our friend for a long time. Follow Tom at @twolf10]

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-12-35-34-pm

The Blame the Media Movement

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-10-10-55-amThere was an odd moment yesterday on Twitter when a bunch of people were RTing screen caps of NYT’s front page the day after Jim Comey’s October 28 letter, blaming the media for Hillary’s loss.

I think the idea behind their complaints is that because the media — as embodied by the NYT — spent so much time focusing on Hillary’s emails, she lost.

I agree that “the media’s” focus on Hillary’s email contributed significantly to the loss. But the way in which people were complaining about it betrays a lack of understanding of the problem.

First, consider what they were complaining about. The NYT’s print edition had a topline story that “New emails jolt Clinton campaign in race’s last days.” That is almost exactly the Hillary camp’s preferred explanation for why they lost, that the Comey announcement roiled her campaign right at the end. The NYT also focused on Comey’s inappropriate behavior. And also reported what Trump said about the emails — again, reporting what the opposing candidate actually said.

Here’s how Media Matters — which because of close ties between the campaign and the organization, should be considered a house organ for the campaign — dealt with this treatment in real time.

Over the past two days, The New York Times has devoted five of its six above-the-fold articles to FBI director James Comey’s letter to congressional leaders indicating that the Bureau is reviewing additional “emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as secretary of state. By providing such prominent coverage, the Times has indicated that the letter is news of the highest possible significance — in spite of the Times’ own reporting that FBI agents have yet to read the emails and determine if they are significant and the letter “did not reopen” the investigation.

In his October 28 letter, Comey wrote that the FBI has “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” while investigating an unrelated case and is taking “appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.” He added that the “FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete.”

Despite the paucity of information Comey indicated was available, the letter triggered a firestorm of speculative media coverage.

The Times, which has both a responsibility as the leading national newspaper to put the story in appropriate context, and a long history of applying excessive and disproportionate scrutiny to news about Bill and Hillary Clinton, led the media’s feeding frenzy.

On Saturday, the entirety of the Times’ front page above the fold was dedicated to three separate articles about Comey’s letter. The lead story declared, “New Emails Jolt Clinton Campaign In Race’s Last Days; FBI Looks at Messages Found During Inquiry.” But as that article noted, it is not clear whether the emails are “new” or duplicates of emails previously reviewed by the FBI; the FBI “had not yet examined” the emails.

The front page also featured articles on Trump’s response to the news and on Republican and Democratic lawmakers’ criticism of Comey in light of the letter.

The Times front page drew criticism for providing such prominent coverage before it was clear whether the emails in question were even relevant to the investigation.

The MM piece does raise two absolutely fair content complaints: that the NYT said FBI “reopened” the investigation (though I’m not sure the distinction is as important as they make out, especially since the FBI had at least one other open investigation during this period), and that the headline said the emails were new when that was not yet clear.

Fair points. But.

MM is also absolutely obsessed with the way NYT has emphasized this on their front page. You know? A dead tree front page? Not just any dead tree, but the NYT’s dead tree?

Of the 100,000 or so people who decided this election, how many of them get their news from the NYT, much less the dead tree version of the NYT? In both the rural and urban areas where Hillary lost MI, you’d have to go to a store, and even then the Sunday Times might be the only thing you could get in dead tree form in timely fashion. I’m sure it’s easier to get the dead tree NYT in Philly, but not in Erie, PA, two other places where Hillary lost this election. So while the NYT’s coverage surely matters, its relative placement on the dead tree is not the thing you should focus on.

You want to track what caused the undue influence of the Comey letter on the election? A far better place to focus is on Bret Baier’s claim, a few days later, that two sources had told him with 99% certainty that Hillary was going to be indicted. MM did cover that, for several days straight, including showing that Fox kept reporting on the claim even after Baier retracted it.

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-11-27-51-am

But that’s not the other thing you need to track.

Obviously, you need to track Breitbart, the Steve Bannon site that legitimized white supremacy.

Particularly given that the rural areas where Hillary underperformed have often lost their local press (which might otherwise have exposed them to the AP version) you also need to account for social media. It would be bad enough if that consisted solely of people consuming the conspiracy theories their buddies pass on. But, as has increasingly been discussed both during and since the election, those have been hijacked.

On both, people — even some without any stake in the election, such as kids in Macedonia — created false claims to generate clicks to make money.

“This is the news of the millennium!” said the story on WorldPoliticus.com. Citing unnamed FBI sources, it claimed Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her email scandal.

“Your Prayers Have Been Answered,” declared the headline.

For Trump supporters, that certainly seemed to be the case. They helped the baseless story generate over 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Meanwhile, roughly 6,000 miles away in a small town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a young man watched as money began trickling into his Google AdSense account.

[snip]

Most of the posts on these sites are aggregated, or completely plagiarized, from fringe and right-wing sites in the US. The Macedonians see a story elsewhere, write a sensationalized headline, and quickly post it to their site. Then they share it on Facebook to try and generate traffic. The more people who click through from Facebook, the more money they earn from ads on their website.

Earlier in the year, some in Veles experimented with left-leaning or pro–Bernie Sanders content, but nothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content.

“People in America prefer to read news about Trump,” said a Macedonian 16-year-old who operates BVANews.com.

BuzzFeed News’ research also found that the most successful stories from these sites were nearly all false or misleading.

Far more troublingly, Facebook’s algorithm that influences what news people see not only doesn’t sort out fake news, but they purposely avoided fixing the problem during the election because that would have disproportionately affected conservative “news.”

[I]t’s hard to visit Facebook without seeing phony headlines like “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” or “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” promoted by no-name news sites like the Denver Guardian and Ending The Fed.

Gizmodo has learned that the company is, in fact, concerned about the issue, and has been having a high-level internal debate since May about how the network approaches its role as the largest news distributor in the US. The debate includes questions over whether the social network has a duty to prevent misinformation from spreading to the 44 percent of Americans who get their news from the social network.

According to two sources with direct knowledge of the company’s decision-making, Facebook executives conducted a wide-ranging review of products and policies earlier this year, with the goal of eliminating any appearance of political bias. One source said high-ranking officials were briefed on a planned News Feed update that would have identified fake or hoax news stories, but disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites by downgrading or removing that content from people’s feeds. According to the source, the update was shelved and never released to the public.

It’s unclear if the update had other deficiencies that caused it to be scrubbed.

“They absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous citing fear of retribution from the company. The source added, “there was a lot of fear about upsetting conservatives after Trending Topics,” and that “a lot of product decisions got caught up in that.”

A similar effect is happening as we speak, spreading the false claim that Trump won the popular vote.

We actually don’t know what the media diet of the average person who normally would have voted Democratic is — I sincerely hope it’s something we get a handle on. But we need to understand that we would be lucky if the dead tree NYT is what we need to worry about.

And given that Trump is likely to overturn net neutrality, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Update: Fixed the Buzzfeed blockquote.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

watch-trumps-tax-evasion

The Questions That Should Be Being Asked About Trump’s Tax Returns

watch-trumps-tax-evasion[Editor’s Note – this is a guest post by a friend of ours here at the Emptywheel Blog, Bob Lord. Bob is a longtime tax attorney with some very salient thoughts on Trump’s taxes, and lack of production thereof]

By Robert J. Lord

A lot has been said about Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public. But despite the volume of commentary, it’s not clear the right questions even are being asked.

Trump claims he can’t release his returns because he’s under audit. At some level, that’s a legitimate concern. It would hardly be fair if thousands of tax professionals who oppose Trump politically helped the IRS by publishing their own analyses of the returns. Ultimately, however, it’s a phony excuse.

But rather than challenge the logic behind Trump’s refusal to release returns, a series of questions should be asked:

First, what tax years are under audit? Does it go back beyond 2012? If not, can the 2011 return be released? After all, the statute of limitations on the audit of that year has passed, so there’s no exposure to Trump by releasing that return. If not 2011, how about 2010?

Second, why haven’t the audit notices been released? An audit notice is a short, generic letter from the IRS stating that a taxpayer’s return has been selected for examination. There’s nothing so sensitive in such a generic notice that it could not be made public. At this point, Trump has not even offered up this most basic evidence that he is really even under audit. Why hasn’t proof been demanded?

Third, for the tax returns that are under audit, why can’t the first two pages be released? After all, those first two pages simultaneously contain the information most relevant to the public about a presidential candidate and contain no information that reveals the issues under audit. Although an audit ultimately impacts the numbers that appear on the first two pages of the return, it’s the schedules and other information that the IRS analyzes in an audit. For example, the first page of Trump’s return states the income or loss he received from partnerships and real estate investments, but it’s a schedule attached to the return, and the returns of the partnerships in which Trump is a partner, that contain the information the IRS would scrutinize in an audit.

Fourth, if for whatever reason the first two pages of the returns can’t be released, could Trump at least release five numbers from each of his returns: his gross income, his adjusted gross income, his taxable income, his self-employment tax liability, and his income tax liability? If not, then why not?

Fifth, is the sensitivity of Trump’s IRS audit the only reason behind his refusal to release the returns? Is Trump also under audit by any other tax agency, such as New York State’s Department of Revenue?

These questions would force Trump to take one of two approaches: Either continue to evade or allow the exposure of an uncomfortable (and intuitively obvious) reality – that the sensitivity of his audit is not the real reason for his refusal to release his returns. In all likelihood, he’d take the first approach, probably claiming that his tax advisors have told him not to release any information publicly. But, again, that cannot explain his refusal to release returns up to 2011, for which the statute of limitations have all expired.

What is the real reason Trump does not want to release the returns, even the first two pages? It could be that there’s some embarrassing piece of information in there somewhere and Trump learned from Romney’s refusal to go beyond a limited release of his returns that eventually people forget about a candidate’s refusal to come clean. More likely, however, the problem he’s facing is his own lack of credibility. The tax return of a real estate magnate like Trump paints a very distorted picture. Income will vary wildly from one year to the next. Important items might be buried in the return of a partnership or corporation that can’t be released because of minority partners or shareholders. Taxpayers in Trump’s position tend to bunch their charitable contributions, making them in the years they provide the most tax benefit. Unfortunately for Trump, that practice could make him appear incredibly tight-fisted if his returns over too short a period are seen in isolation.

And that’s where Trump could be trapped by his own lack of credibility. It may well be that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for whatever Trump would prefer not to be out there for public comment. Trump’s problem is that if the explanation comes from him, nobody will believe it. And he knows it.

At a minimum, however, the above critical questions must be asked. Even if Trump has to explain a few items on his returns, that is no greater fear or burden than every other previous Presidential candidate has faced. Certainly Trump may have varied financial interests, including charitable trusts. But so have other candidates before, including Hillary Clinton this election, and all have engaged in public transparency but for Trump.

Hopefully the press, including the debate moderators, will force Mr. Trump to answer these basic questions.

Robert J. Lord, a tax lawyer and former Congressional candidate, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Bob previously served as an adjunct faculty member at the Arizona State University School of Law. Bob’s work focuses on the relationship of tax law to inequality. He contributes to both the Inequality.org website and to OtherWords, the Institute’s national syndicated editorial service. Bob also is a staff member at Blog For Arizona, the leading political blog in Arizona.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

Brennan Calls Out the Press for Giving ISIS More Credit Than They Deserve

Both James Clapper and John Brennan appeared at the Aspen Security Forum this week (it was Brennan’s first appearance, apparently). As I may lay out, Clapper was by far the more measured of the two. But this exchange, between Brennan and Dina Temple-Raston, deserves more attention. She notes that ISIS gets credit for attacks (she doesn’t name any, but I’d point to the San Bernardino killing and the Orlando massacre) that seem incidentally motivated at the last minute by ISIS, but generally are motivated by other issues.

To his credit, Brennan blames the press for crediting ISIS with these attacks.

Temple-Raston: It seems that people get credit for being an ISIS adherent just by having a brief flirtation online with the group. And I wonder if by calling something an ISIS attack so readily, which we seem to do, whether or not we’re giving ISIS more credit than it deserves.

Brennan: When you say “calling something an ISIS attack” that we’re prone to do, you’re talking about the media, right?

[Laughter, Brennan not exactly smiling, then later smiling]

Temple-Raston: No.

[More laughter]

Temple-Raston: I just wonder if you can’t say that it’s an opportunistic attack, as opposed to an ISIS attack.

But then Brennan goes on and notes that getting credit for such attacks is part of ISIS’s strategy.

Brennan: Sometimes I think ISIL doesn’t know themselves. I think most times they don’t. If somebody has been encouraged and incited by ISIL, they have no idea if that was the real motivation. Even if somebody is found with literature in their apartment that might reflect ISIL’s, you know, narrative, that doesn’t mean that they carried it out for that. It may mean that they, you know, woke up that day and wanted to commit suicide and wanted to take others down with them. But, it is part of ISIL’s strategy to have people that they can deploy, directly, that they can support directly, as well as to encourage and provide indirect direction and incitement to individuals. They will claim credit for a lot of things and they feel as though this is part of their brand.

Therein is the rub. If this is part of ISIS’ strategy, then having the media — and FBI (or, in other countries, other security organizations) — give them credit for it only serves to play to their strength.

Both Brennan and Temple-Raston remained silent about FBI’s role in this process, leaking details about affiliation with ISIS. But that — and the budget driving impulse that is a part of the motivation for it — is as much a part of the problem as the media’s rush to label things ISIS.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Democracy Has Always Been Post-Factual

In my earlier post on Brexit, I pointed to this comment, which has gotten a lot of attention. I agree with what the comment said about swapping elites (its first point) and the impact on the young (its second). But I don’t agree with the third:

Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel.

I’m not saying that the Brexit side told the truth about the downsides of exiting. Indeed, within hours of victory, Ukip leader Nigel Farage admitted a key claim made in Brexit propaganda, that the UK would save £350 million a week that could be put into social services like the National Health Service (which got cut significantly under Cameron) was a “mistake.”

I’m not even saying that this election, in the UK, was not exception in terms of the bald propaganda unleashed. I haven’t seen that measured, but everything I’ve heard reports that it was awful.

Still, what does it mean that we live in a post-factual democracy? I thought, at first, that the US is just ahead of its cousin, in that we’ve had WMD and birther lies for over a decade. But the UK had the very same WMD lies. Indeed, both countries have proudly lied about national security secrets for decades, centuries in England.

Plus, as I thought back in US history, I couldn’t get to a time when democracy didn’t depend on some key, big lies. Remarkably, they’re still some of the very same lies mobilized in the Brexit vote. You don’t get a United States, you don’t get a British Empire, without spewing a lot of lies about the inferiority of black (brown, beige, continental) men. You don’t get America, as it currently exists, without the myth of American exceptionalism, the unique national myth that has served to root an increasingly diverse former colony. You don’t get Britain without certain beliefs, traced back to Matthew Arnold and earlier, about the enobling force of British culture.

Those myths are precisely what have driven the democracy of both countries for a long time. They were a way of imposing discipline, privilege, and selective cohesion such that less privileged members of those included in the myth would buy in and tolerate the other inequities without undue violence.

They’re really the same myths deployed by some in Brexit: the immigrants, not the austerity policies, are taking your jobs and disrupting your English way of life.

Perhaps we’re moving closer to a fact-based democracy. Access to rebut sanctioned lies is more readily accessible, though the scaffold of spying makes it harder to release, except in bulk. We’re becoming more cosmopolitan, too. At least some voted Remain for that reason — the old nationalism has been dented in the decades of a failed European experiment.

But make no mistake, the myths have always been there. We’re still trying to break free.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Latest 60 Minutes Propaganda: We Need a Crypto Back Door because ISIS Is “Coming Here” with WMD

It has been clear for several years now that 60 Minutes has become a propaganda vehicle for the intelligence community (postpost, post). So it was unsurprising that John Brennan was given an opportunity to fearmonger last night without pesky people like Ron Wyden around pointing out that CIA itself poses a threat, even according to the terms laid out by the Intelligence Community.

I find the timing and content of John Brennan’s appearance of note.

The first segment (indeed the first words!) of the appearance did two things: first conflate ISIS-inspired attacks with ISIS-directed ones to suggest the terrorist organization might strike in the US.

Scott Pelley: Is ISIS coming here?

John Brennan: I think ISIL does want to eventually find it’s, it’s mark here.

Scott Pelley: You’re expecting an attack in the United States?

John Brennan: I’m expecting them to try to put in place the operatives, the material or whatever else that they need to do or to incite people to carry out these attacks, clearly. So I believe that their attempts are inevitable. I don’t think their successes necessarily are.

Here’s how the global threat testimony from last week, which really serves as temporal justification for Brennan’s appearance, carried out a similar though more nuanced conflation of ISIS’ aspirations with the aspirational plots here in the US.

The United States will almost certainly remain at least a rhetorically important enemy for most violent extremists in part due to past and ongoing US military, political, and economic engagement overseas. Sunni violent extremists will probably continually plot against US interests overseas. A smaller number will attempt to overcome the logistical challenges associated with conducting attacks on the US homeland. The July 2015 attack against military facilities in Chattanooga and December 2015 attack in San Bernardino demonstrate the threat that homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) also pose to the homeland. In2014, the FBI arrested approximately one dozen US-based ISIL supporters, in 2015, that number increased to approximately five dozen arrests. These individuals were arrested for a variety of reasons, predominantly for attempting to provide material support to ISIL.

Both Brennan and the threat testimony slide carefully from ISIS overcoming the logistical problems to attack themselves with attacking here to the ISIS-inspired far smaller attacks.

After having suggested ISIS wants to attack the US, Pelley then led Brennan to overstate the degree to which the Paris attackers hid behind encryption.

Scott Pelley: What did you learn from Paris?

John Brennan: That there is a lot that ISIL probably has underway that we don’t have obviously full insight into. We knew the system was blinking red. We knew just in the days before that ISIL was trying to carry out something. But the individuals involved have been able to take advantage of the newly available means of communication that are–that are walled off, from law enforcement officials.

Scott Pelley: You’re talking about encrypted Internet communications.

John Brennan: Yeah, I’m talking about the very sophisticated use of these technologies and communication systems.

From all the reports thus far, ISIS achieved what little obscurity they had primarily through burner devices, not through encryption (not to mention the fact that French authorities got an encryption key from someone who had decided against carrying out an ISIS attack the summer before this attack). And while Jim Comey revealed that FBI had not yet cracked one of several phones used by the San Bernardino attackers (who were not directed by ISIS and may have only invoked it for their own obscurantist purposes), the threat testimony pointed to social media as as big a concern as encryption (most of what ISIS uses is fairly weak).

Terrorists will almost certainly continue to benefit in 2016 from a new generation of recruits proficient in information technology, social media, and online research. Some terrorists will look to use these technologies to increase the speed of their communications, the availability of their propaganda, and ability to collaborate with new partners. They will easily take advantage of widely available, free encryption technology, mobile-messaging applications, the dark web, and virtual environments to pursue their objectives.

Finally — still in the first segment!!! — Pelley invites Brennan to suggest that limited reports that ISIS has used chemical weapons in Syria mean they might use them here.

Scott Pelley: Does ISIS have chemical weapons?

John Brennan: We have a number of instances where ISIL has used chemical munitions on the battlefield.

Scott Pelley: Artillery shells.

John Brennan: Sure. Yeah.

Scott Pelley: ISIS has access to chemical artillery shells?

John Brennan: Uh-huh (affirm). There are reports that ISIS has access to chemical precursors and munitions that they can use.

The CIA believes that ISIS has the ability to manufacture small quantities of chlorine and mustard gas.

Scott Pelley: And the capability of exporting those chemicals to the West?

John Brennan: I think there’s always the potential for that. This is why it’s so important to cut off the various transportation routes and smuggling routes that they have used.

Compare Brennan’s suggestion that ISIS may be manufacturing CW with the threat testimony note that two people have been exposed to mustard gas, though with far more widespread allegations of such use.

We assess that non state actors in the region are also using chemicals as a means of warfare. The OPCW investigation into an alleged ISIL attack in Syria in August led it to conclude that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard. We continue to track numerous allegations ofISIL’s use of chemicals in attacks in Iraq and Syria, suggesting that attacks might be widespread.

Now, I’ll grant you that Brennan much more carefully dodges here than Dick Cheney ever used to. But it’s pure fear-mongering — especially in the wake of the Oregon standoff that makes it clear domestic extremists are not only every bit as motivated as ISIS wannabes, but better trained and equipped. And fear-mongering using Dick Cheney’s favorite techniques (albeit with the added kicker of crypto fear-mongering).

And it all happened as Brennan’s buddies the Saudis are pretending to (finally) join the fight against ISIS in what is a fairly transparent attempt to prevent Russian-backed Syrian forces from gaining a crucial advantage in Syria. That is, this fairly crass fear-monger is likely directed at Assad as much as it is ISIS.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

NYT Should Explain How It Selects Which Articles Get Translated into Mandarin

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 10.26.59 AMThe front page of the NYT today features the story of Anastasia Lin, Chinese-born and Canadian-raised Miss Canada, who was denied entry to China for the Miss World contest.

Clasping hands with youngsters in red Communist Youth League scarves, contestants from more than 110 nations descended on the southern Chinese island of Hainan this week for the 65th annual Miss World contest.

But one contestant was absent from the opening ceremony: Miss Canada, otherwise known as Anastasia Lin, a 25-year-old actress and classically trained pianist who has been denied a Chinese visa to attend the monthlong pageant, apparently because of her outspoken advocacy for human rights and religious freedom in China.

After waiting in vain for weeks, Ms. Lin packed up her Canadian-designed eveningwear on Wednesday and quietly boarded a Hong Kong-bound flight with the hope she might obtain an on-demand visa at the border and perhaps slip unnoticed into mainland China.

It was not to be.

The Chinese authorities, tipped off to her arrival, barred her from flying onward to Hainan.

You can read the story in English or–on the web–in Mandarin.

You can also read this story, on opposition to a new cloning technology center opening in China, in Mandarin.

But Mr. Xu must contend with skeptical consumers in China, where food safety is a near obsession after scandals like melamine-tainted baby formula and recycled industrial “gutter oil.” Online reaction to the project has been overwhelmingly negative.

“Crazily evil!!!” commented the user No-Music-No-Life on Weibo.

You can’t read this story, on Xi Jinping’s efforts to revamp the military, in Mandarin (though as the article notes, it was available in and almost entirely derived from China’s official news service, Xinhua).

President Xi Jinping of China has announced a major reorganization of the nation’s military, state-backed news media reported on Thursday, laying out plans to create new command systems intended to integrate and rebalance land, air and sea forces into a more nimble People’s Liberation Army.

You also can’t read this story, on the sentencing of human rights activist Guo Feixiong, at which he was sentenced with an extra charge on top of those he was tried on.

Yang Maodong [Guo Feixiong], a hardened veteran of political protest in southern China, knew he had virtually no hope of winning his freedom on Friday when he was brought into a courtroom to face a judge’s verdict on charges that he had disturbed public order.

Chinese judges, after all, convict and imprison indicted dissidents with metronomic consistency, reflecting the ruling Communist Party’s control of the courts. Mr. Yang — a human rights campaigner better known by his pen name, Guo Feixiong — had already prepared a statement denouncing his imprisonment.

But the Tianhe District People’s Court in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, erupted in denunciations from Mr. Yang and his lawyers when the presiding judge revealed that he had added a new charge against the defendant — one that his lawyers had been given no chance to defend him against.
The new charge, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” meant that Mr. Yang would spend an additional two years in prison, according to his lawyers. Mr. Yang, who stood trial almost exactly a year ago, was convicted Friday on that charge and the original one and was sentenced to a total of six years.

[snip]

Chinese law allows judges to add new charges to convictions at their own discretion. But the lawyers said that the power was rarely used, and they denounced the judge’s refusal to grant them time to prepare a considered response.

Asked by telephone Friday about the addition of the new charge, an official at the court in Guangzhou who deals with news media inquiries said, “I don’t know, and even if I did, I couldn’t tell you.” She would not give her name.

This is not the first time I’ve been struck by NYT’s selection of articles to translate into Mandarin; it did so as well with a curiously incomplete story about US expelling its Operation Fox Hound agents. I’ve noticed a few others in passing without recording what they are (but will now do so).

It really is time for NYT to explain the process by which it selects stories for translation into Mandarin. In general, it seems as if the stories that would have good propaganda value get translated — though that doesn’t explain why the Guo Feixiong story did not get translated.

But if it is basing these decisions off of propaganda value, it should also explain how it selects them. Does the State Department get a vote?

It is great for NYT to translate articles. But if it’s only doing so for those that serve US interests (and pointedly not doing so for articles that serve Chinese interests) it is really serving as a propaganda organ, not a news site.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.