January 11, 2017

Good morning.

Running an unsubstantiated tale

Who’d think there might be a connection between Monica Lewinsky and Donald Trump? Chalk it up to the media’s latest self-inflicted wound.

On a Sunday in late January of 1998, those of us in Washington bureaus confronted an ABC News story built on a claim from the Drudge Report: Former White House intern Lewinsky possessed a semen-stained dress after an encounter with President Bill Clinton, the story went.

I oversaw the Chicago Tribune operation and was uneasy with our ultimate decision to mention the ABC report the next morning but quickly underscore that we couldn’t independently verify it. We were conscious of the power of TV and radio, which were repeating the ABC report.

It was “out there,” and we’d look like out-of-touch old farts by not mentioning it in some way. Or so we told ourselves. We were predictably vilified by some.

Fast-forward to Tuesday and the decision by mainstream media organizations to go with a salacious tale about the president-elect, even when nobody could verify the key details. They include his allegedly hiring prostitutes to perform a “golden showers” show (i.e. urinating) in front of him at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Moscow.

CNN broke the story but did not include the most salacious details and underscored that it could not independently confirm the details about compromising personal and financial information involving Trump. (CNN)

But BuzzFeed decided to not leave anything to the imagination as it ran with an actual 35-page document that was the source of the two-page summary, with BuzzFeed underlining in yellow the sexiest (in some cases perverse) allegations. It’s not family breakfast table fare.

The doors were now ajar. At 6:02 p.m. came the breaking news bulletin from The New York Times: “Intelligence chiefs told President Obama and Donald Trump of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had salacious information on Mr. Trump.”

The paper’s quickie initial story indicated, “The material was not corroborated, and The New York Times has not been able to confirm the claims. But intelligence agencies considered it so potentially explosive that they decided Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump and congressional leaders needed to be told about it and that the agencies were actively investigating it.”

With an hour or so, wire stories or staff-crafted rewrites were everywhere, including The Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, KTLA-TV in Los Angeles and KLIF, a news radio station in Dallas. In my totally random online survey, I found only one outlet that didn’t have a story — the Bangor Daily News in Maine. And nobody could verify the essential claims.

BuzzFeed partly rationalized its decision on the notion it was allowing Americans to “make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.” Yes, it was merely being a conduit for civic engagement.

Editor Ben Smith told his staff, “There is serious reason to doubt the allegations. Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of goodwill may disagree with our choice. But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”

It doesn’t totally convince me. Just imagine how much total crap the intelligence agencies hear every day and may even pass on to a President or his top aides. Do such transmissions and briefings by their very existence justify media disclosure? Consider: “The CIA informed President Obama that a source in the Middle East claims (without any substantiation) that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a secret agent of ISIS.”

“It represents irresponsible journalism,” says Jeffrey Seglin, an ethics and policy expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Running a disclaimer that it doesn’t know if the source is who he or she says he or she is nor if the facts are correct doesn’t make it a responsible editorial decision to publish unsubstantiated information.”

Says Jack Davis, former publisher of The Hartford Courant and himself a crack investigative reporter: “The purported chain of custody behind this 35 pages of typography (which we know could be produced easily by any clever spy novelist and Hewlett Packard printer) is so tenuous that it should warn us to keep this unpublished until we can corroborate the links of the chain: A guy says he has heard from guys who have heard guys relate that Russians know something really bad about the next president of the United States.”

“… Does the fact that government officials worry that it might leak justify our preemptively making it public? I don’t think so.”

Even if other media outlets publish it under the de facto cover of “Well, it got brought up in these high-level intelligence briefings to Obama and Trump,” there remains a case to go high, not low, to steal from Michelle Obama.

Davis would prefer this as an operating principle: “‘We have standards. And our distinguished newspaper will not be stampeded by irresponsible Buzzfeed postings, and piling-on coverage by CNN and by The New York Times trying to separate itself from the substance by writing about the process.'”

“Somebody has to have standards,” he says.

Of course, everybody in every corner of this saga — even Donald Trump — believes they do.

The morning babble

“Fox & Friends” opened at the Spot of Tea restaurant in Jeff Sessions’ hometown of Mobile, Alabama, which is on central time, meaning folks were supposedly breakfasting there at 5:02 a.m. It referred to reports “swirling around” Trump based on “unverified reports.”

CNN’s “New Day” had Evan Perez and Carl Bernstein, underscoring that Sen. John McCain got a version of the alleged Russian documents last summer and brought them to FBI Director James Comey (who already had a version, said Perez).

MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” spent 19 minutes “dancing around” the whole tale, noted chagrined co-host Mika Brzezinski, not specifically noting the allegations because it can’t confirm them. Joe Scarborough wondered if something is in an unverified report, originating in what’s known as “opposition research,” should it have been in an intelligence report? And, even then, added Ignatius, was it then a story?

“Why would BuzzFeed and CNN go with this?” asked Scarborough. “It’s a complete molotov cocktail thrown into the middle of the political debate with absolutely no verification.” Mike Barnicle said it had all been out there for months, with the justifiable hook for CNN being the intelligence briefings.

The ignominy of Monica Crowley

The Washington Post reported, “The publisher of a book by Monica Crowley, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for a top National Security Council post, said Tuesday that it will stop selling copies until she addresses allegations of plagiarism.”

Alas, throughout the day Amazon.com, whose founder owns the newspaper, was running ads on The Drudge Report for the book. A few hours later, those appeared to be gone. And so was the book on Amazon.com. It was still selling other Crowley books.

Obama’s farewell speech

Reaction to the president’s Chicago farewell was very positive, with even the folks at Fox cutting him some slack, though persisting in the fiction that the election obliterates his legacy. But who cares about the punditocracy when you could check in with Joey Gorman, a Chicago 7th grader who is one of 39 students worldwide who are between 10 and 14 and report for the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps?

“I thought the whole experience very cool,” said Joey, who interviewed Anderson Cooper, Rev. Jesse Jackson and, more importantly, 13 kids from four different states who were also there.

“A lot agreed that he gave a good, strong speech and spoke to youth,” says Joey, a friend of our teenager. “A lot connected with that and were happy he talked to their generation.”

Joey, now get to work. Your deadline is just 48 hours away.

A long-awaited court ruling

A federal judge has ruled that the dramatic and complicated 2007 sale of what was then known as Tribune Company to billionaire real estate developer Sam Zell was not a fraud. (Reuters) The suit involved the sale and the subsequent bankruptcy of the Zell-run firm in 2008. Executives made many millions and some litigation remains.

In sum, “Just because directors and officers of the former Tribune Company might have made mistakes, misjudgments of even ill-informed or bad decisions, the judge ruled that such blunders don’t mean that company’s officers or directors intended to defraud the company’s creditors,” says Jim O’Shea, former editor of The Los Angeles Times who wrote a book about the transaction and aftermath, “The Deal From Hell.”

“Yes company directors and its officers stood to gain financially if the deal got done,” O’Shea said. “But the judge said the trustee’s lawyers had to prove such mistakes were intentional and fraudulent and not merely screw ups to justify forcing shareholders to return to unpaid creditors financial gains they got from selling shares, a process that could prove deeply disruptive to financial markets if lawyers could initiate suits to get their money simply because a deal went bad.”

Oh, O’Shea concluded his pro bono analysis for me with this esoteric recollection: “As Sam Zell once said, ‘Shit happens.'”

Like the sun rising in the East…

So much for the actually important confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees to run the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice. All the cable folks quickly ran to Charleston, South Carolina for the totally predictable jury decision to give Dylann Roof the death penalty for his mass murders in a local church.

Obama and culture wars

Religion News Service does a nice job assessing Obama and our culture wars, finding his a mixed legacy that includes keeping alive the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships started by his predecessor George W. Bush under a different name.

You probably don’t know, since the media fumbles with religion, but “over the course of eight years, beneficiaries of government-funded religious social services have won greater religious liberty protections and an interfaith college initiative has grown to include hundreds of campuses involved in service projects.”

“His advisory councils of religious and secular leaders have included transgender, Sikh and evangelical members, and have promoted goals such as eliminating poverty, preventing lead poisoning, and improving relations between communities and law enforcement.”

At the same time he never changed a rule he promise to revise, namely one “that has roiled church-state separation activists because it allows government-funded religious organizations to hire based on faith.” (RNN)

Medical break

STAT, the new site on the biomedical world, discloses “After the director of its Wellness Institute was forced to walk back an anti-vaccine blog post over the weekend,” the fabled Cleveland Clinic “expects to halt the sale of some alternative medicine products.” (STAT)

His first press conference since July

It may be must-see TV. Trump is scheduled to address the media at 11 a.m. One suspects the cable news networks will rather abruptly move from confirmation hearings for Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson or a variety or four others that begin today. CNN reported that Tillerson will say the U.S. must be “clear-eyed” about dangerous of our relationship with Russia, suggesting a different tack than he’d been associated with as ExxonMobil chief.

Preventing perils of A.I.

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and the Omidyar Network, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s nonprofit, have each committed $10 million to fund academic research and development aimed at keeping artificial intelligence systems ethical and prevent building AI that may harm society.” (Recode)

“The fund received an additional $5 million from the Knight Foundation and two other $1 million donations from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Jim Pallotta, founder of the Raptor Group. The $27 million reserve is being anchored by MIT’s Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.”

An aside at the Jeff Sessions hearing

The Senate was as cozy as ever Tuesday as Sen. Jeff Sessions sailed through his confirmation hearing to become Attorney General. There weren’t any bombshells, with the Democrats falling pretty short in deflating a well-prepared nominee. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson got it right, especially on Democratic fumbling. (The New Yorker) And there was this:

“I, too, received the Annie Taylor award,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told Sessions. That particular award was a fleeting bone of contention for some Democrats.

“I was there. I got it, too. I don’t get enough awards…Yeah, I got the award, I went to the dinner and Chris Matthews interviewed me. Well, I don’t know what that means, other than I’ll do almost anything for a free dinner.”

A final ride

Carol Lee, a Wall Street Journal reporter, served as pool reporter on the Obamas’ trek to Chicago. As they headed to the event from Washington, she wrote:

“He and FLOTUS (Michelle) boarded (Air Force One) at Andrews at 4:19 p.m. for the last time as POTUS and FLOTUS. Your pooler is resisting making every ‘last time’ reference humanly possible but it’s so hard (cause) there are so many potential opportunities.”

“(Air Force One) is rolling and wheels up momentarily…Side note: Lester Holt and crew are aboard as well.”

And, now, with Trump’s press conference, the realities of lame-duckdom will not have been quite so clear as the press turns to the new guy. The CNN countdown clock was ticking away to what may itself be a combative extravaganza.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Mika Brzezinski’s name.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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