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Keeping Tabs on the Flynn Story

Given his connection to Rhode Island (he grew up in Middletown and went to URI), General Michael Flynn’s involvement with the Trump White House and plea bargain after special counsel Robert Mueller accused him of lying to the FBI has been a big topic for the local news media.  The Providence Journal’s G. Wayne Miller even won an award for a profile titled “Before the Fall.”

Given that this local interest seems to have petered out as the Mueller investigation has come into question, including around Flynn’s plea bargain, it’s important to note how the story is changing for this local boy who made it big.  Lawyer/blogger John Hinderaker has followed the story in detail and believed the case against Flynn was “incredibly weak,” in part because the evidence is all in summary notes made by FBI agents, rather than recorded or transcribed.  Now he highlights the following detail published in The Hill:

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) suggested Thursday in an interview wth Hill.TV’s “Rising” that evidence may have been tampered with in the case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. …

Meadows suggested one focus is whether FBI interview reports — known as 302 reports — about Flynn were altered to improve the chances he’d be prosecuted.

We don’t know what evidence Meadows might cite, but given recent revelations about political corruption in the FBI, especially with Peter Strzok, one of the agents who interviewed Flynn, it isn’t difficult to believe that they set him up for a process charge so Mueller could squeeze him for information that might snag the President of the United States, whom they despise.

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Legislators Get That Old Elementary School Thrill Over Motion Picture Filming

I still remember the excitement around the elementary school when a house in the neighborhood was used to film some part of a movie or TV show.  (Obviously, my memory isn’t that clear, although I don’t know whether any of us ever actually knew what it was that was being filmed.)  It’s almost like finding a door to another dimension when a place in this world is used in the creation of some fictional world on the screen.

As with everything else, however, the excitement sours when politics enter the mix:

A major TV show is expected to start filming in Rhode Island soon and may have helped persuade lawmakers to sweeten the state’s motion picture incentive program. …

We aren’t allowed to know what the show is or who is in it before our elected representatives commit to giving it more money — much less whether it is the kind of content we would want to subsidize — but:

… they say it is big, with $34 million in estimated production costs, which would make it the most expensive Rhode Island motion picture since the $41.5-million canine superhero flick “Underdog” in 2006.

… those credits could swell to $10.2 million thanks to an amendment inserted into the state budget passed by the House on Friday night, which would allow productions to get 30 percent of their costs back instead of 25 percent.

So why are we doing this?  As Patrick Anderson reports in his Providence Journal article, the state’s own office of Revenue Analysis finds that these tax credits don’t come anywhere close to returning their investment for the State of Rhode Island (by which I understand the report to mean the state government).

Perhaps that old elementary school excitement about local movie making doesn’t ever sour for those who get to spend other people’s money to make it happen.

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Yes, That Political Double Standard

Just sayin’.  Neither of the following is purely objective reportage, but the first is stealthily positive, while the second is overtly negative in its focus, its overstatement of the action taken, and insistent reduction to partisan disagreement.

Washington Post in 2011:

In gay rights victory, Obama administration won’t defend Defense of Marriage Act

The Obama administration said Wednesday that it will no longer defend the federal law that bans the recognition of same-sex marriage because it considers the legislation unconstitutional, a sudden and rare reversal.

Washington Post in 2018:

Trump administration won’t defend ACA in case brought by GOP states

The Trump administration said Thursday night that it will not defend the Affordable Care Act against the latest legal challenge to its constitutionality — a dramatic break from the executive branch’s tradition of arguing to uphold existing statutes and a land mine for health insurance changes the ACA brought about.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t been on the media-bias bandwagon almost since I began really paying attention to politics nearly 20 years ago, but we’re getting to the point that anything negative that a mainstream news source reports about the president must, almost by necessity, be assumed to be spin, potentially to convey the opposite meaning from the truth.

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Some Campaign Promotion for Our Delegation

Mainly for a bit of midweek creative thinking, give a read to Linda Borg’s recent article in the Providence Journal about three members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation and their hangout session with some local youths:

Only in a state as small as Rhode Island would you be able to corral most of your congressional delegation in the basement of a brew pub.

But there they were — U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, U.S. Rep. James Langevin and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — taking photographs and playing shuffleboard with some 65 millennials against the din of pop music. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed had planned on attending the meet-and-greet but got pulled away on official business.

Many of the college-age students were from organized progressive organizations; a couple had either worked for one of the congressmen or campaigned for them. The mood was relaxed, the questions mostly of the softball variety. This was friendly territory for the delegation, with hardly a Republican in sight.

Take note of the very last line of the article:  “Sunday’s event was organized by all four members of the delegation.”

The creative part comes in imagining how the story would be presented differently were our delegation made up of conservative Republicans.  First of all, the article wouldn’t lead with the misleading impression that some vague “you” had managed to “corral” the politicians together, in a sign of the warm closeness of our small state.  Rather, it would start with the fact that the politicians had organized the event.  Maybe the headline would be “Party Faithful Get Special Access,” and it would go something like this:

The promise of campaign-funded beer was not enough to fill the booths in the basement of a local brew pub, as Rhode Island’s conservative congressmen and one of two U.S. senators sought to lure young activists into their campaigns.

The absent senator had planned to attend but decided that his time was better spent elsewhere.  Those who attended managed to slip in a few softball questions between bar games and to pose for campaign-ready “candid” photos with the three white Republican men.

If you’re a Democrat with substantive questions for your elected officials, you would not have been welcome.

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Competing Interests in Local News Media

As I told John DePetro in our segment last week, the attack on Sinclair Broadcasting and Channel 10 in Rhode Island has the feel of scapegoating, as if the mainstream media writ large wants to offload its own sins onto a creature it can banish into the desert.  That sense arose again whencombining two items from the Providence Journal.

The first is a column by Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg, who describes how the paper’s national owner, GateHouse Media, provides lots of content and support for local papers, without “must run” stories as with Sinclair.  Conspicuous, here, is that the content for which Channel 10 is currently under fire was essentially a corporate advertisement promising straightforward news, in contrast to “fake news” from elsewhere.

Well, just last week, I got identical emails at exactly the same time from the Providence Journal and Fall River Herald, both GateHouse outlets, asking me to subscribe:  “Real News, Because the truth Matters.  Truth and Honesty.  We know what matters.”  That sounds quite a bit like the Sinclair spots, which included language like, “We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced, and factual.”  Is it really the difference between journalistic integrity and a threat to our democracy that Sinclair had its news anchors read its version of that ad?

The second relevant item in the Providence Journal is an article by Katherine Gregg about a protest of fewer than two dozen people against Channel 10.  Anybody who’s followed local labor union activities will recognize the names of Patricia Ricci and Louis Rainone, and that connection is intrinsic:

“I am here to protest Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s attempt to muzzle what we think is free speech,″ said Scott Molloy, the retired University of Rhode Island labor-studies professor who appeared to be leading the protest by the newly formed “Free Speech Coalition.”

Rainone’s group, Jobs with Justice, is heavily funded by local labor unions, such as the RI AFL-CIO, and the AFL-CIO is an umbrella union covering Katherine Gregg’s labor union at the Providence Journal.  Shouldn’t that connection be worth a parenthetical note in an article about union activists attacking a competing news outlet?

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Live by the Facebook, Struggle by the Facebook

Think whatever you like about Diamond and Silk, specifically, and capitalizing on the political success of Donald Trump, generally, but their conflict with Facebook provides a very helpful lesson for one’s interaction with the Internet:

Diamond And Silk have been corresponding since September 7, 2017, with Facebook (owned by Mark Zuckerberg), about their bias censorship and discrimination against D&S brand page. Finally after several emails, chats, phone calls, appeals, beating around the bush, lies, and giving us the run around, Facebook gave us another bogus reason why Millions of people who have liked and/or followed our page no longer receives notification and why our page, post and video reach was reduced by a very large percentage. Here is the reply from Facebook. Thu, Apr 5, 2018 at 3:40 PM: “The Policy team has came to the conclusion that your content and your brand has been determined unsafe to the community.” Yep, this was FB conclusion after 6 Months, 29 days, 5 hrs, 40 minutes and 43 seconds. Oh and guess what else Facebook said: “This decision is final and it is not appeal-able in any way.” (Note: This is the exact wording that FB emailed to us.)

Obviously, this is just one side of the story, but the fact remains that anybody who builds their Internet presence primarily by using somebody else’s platform is subject to the whims of that other party.  Use Facebook to build a following, and that other party is Facebook.  Build your online presence with a heavy reliance on Google referrals, and online giant’s algorithm may subtly shift to move you down the list of every search.

And it won’t always be obvious that it’s happening.

The lesson is a back-to-basics one.  Use these platforms for self promotion, but get people interacting with a URL that you own, and build it up with your content, not the tricks that social media allow.

That’s harder, yes, but it’s a more stable strategy than building on a foundation that others can disappear with the push of a button.

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Regarding Non-Competes for the On-Air Talent

I’m not sure why Patrick Anderson weaves together the hoopla about Sinclair Broadcasting’s recent promotional script with the idea of banning non-compete agreements in journalists’ contracts.  That he strives to do so gives the impression of an ulterior motive to construct a narrative, as does the monolithic presentation of non-competes:

Used in a number of industries, non-compete clauses prevent employees from taking a job with a competing company for a set period of time, often one year, after they end their employment, even if it was the station that decided to part ways. …

Former WJAR investigative reporter Jim Taricani called non-competes unfair in written testimony supporting the bill.

“Prohibiting an employee from finding work to support themselves and their families is an outrageous condition of employment,” Taricani wrote. “Unlike non-compete clauses used for employees who work for companies where they may have knowledge of company ‘secrets’ or ‘confidential product research,’ ‘on-air’ talent in broadcasting have no such knowledge of any confidential information.”

The reasons for non-competes vary from industry to industry.  In some cases, knowledge of sensitive information is the thing being protected.  When I worked for a carpentry temp agency, non-competes were a way of preventing contractors from using the company as a trial service.  In the case of journalism, building up contacts and expertise is a critical part of the job, and people who appear on camera are intrinsically part of a station’s brand.

I’m not, therefore, endorsing non-competes, but these aren’t crazy points to make.  WPRI and WJAR have invested in Tim White and Parker Gavigan, respectively, to develop contacts and credibility for investigative reports; if WJAR were to hire White away, WPRI would lose one of its key faces and would have to scramble to rebuild its brand on a very important line of products.

Of course, that should encourage the company to make sure that its star employees are happy, but that balance should be subject to negotiation.  For newcomers, a non-compete agreement could be something of a box, but further along in a career, an employee may offer a non-compete as a way to get more money out of the employer.  If new employees don’t like the box, they don’t have to take the job.

The speed with which people turn to government to enforce whatever they think is in their best interest at any given time is disturbing to behold.

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Not Surprising That Young Americans Repeat What They’ve Been Told

This news, reported by Steve Peoples and Emily Swanson of the Associated Press, is really not at all surprising:

A majority of young people believe President Donald Trump is racist, dishonest and “mentally unfit” for office, according to a new survey that finds the nation’s youngest potential voters are more concerned about the Republican’s performance in the White House than older Americans.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV found that just 33 percent of Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 approve of Trump’s job performance.

Among all adults, that number was 9 percentage points higher, or 42%, which is well above recently reported results for Democrat governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo (at 37%).

In general, though, the news media gives undeserved attention to the opinions of teens and young adults, and reporters do so for the very reason that they shouldn’t:  Those in this age group are the most susceptible to the non-stop propaganda that the news and entertainment media dish out.

Of course younger Americans are more likely to feel that the president is “racist, dishonest and ‘mentally unfit’ for office.”  That’s the message that is hammered again and again by unfunny comics and opinionated journalists.

To be sure, that’s not to say that all coverage is terrible, and it’s certainly not to say that Donald Trump doesn’t deserve criticism.  But just like adults who laud the wisdom of children who repeat their opinions back to them, proclamations that younger folks hold the view that big-time opinion setters say they should have is more rightly seen as evidence of an echo, not a harmony of independently considered voices.

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Not Really a Gotcha on Charitable Giving

Something in this headline from Politico raises a meta question:

Even putting aside the distinction between the president’s budget and the private donations of one of his secretaries, anybody who’s vaguely familiar with political philosophy would see that the implied gotcha of this headline is bogus.  Giving one’s own money to a charity is not at all inconsistent with reducing the compulsory charity of taxpayer funding to the same group.  (Yes, it’s deliberate that “compulsory charity” is any oxymoron.)

So here’s the meta question:  Do the journalists who publish this sort of story not foresee this obvious response, indicating that they are reporting on subject matter without understanding how about half of their potential audience will see it, or are they framing stories mainly as an opposition party would, with the goal of hurting an elected official with whom they disagree?

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Shouldn’t Journalism Be Understated?

In some ways, this is a minor critique of promotion, but in other ways, it seems related to huge problems in our country these days.  WPRI’s Ted Nesi just retweeted the following, wherein CNN Executive Producer Katie Hinman promotes a story currently on her organization’s Web site.  Keep in mind that the linked story is about a single controversy with a single insurer in a single state:

Hinman is extrapolating from this one story — which is definitely newsworthy — to assert outrageous behavior by an entire industry.  One needn’t be a fan of that industry in order to think that’s irresponsible behavior from a news executive.

Most definitely, CNN should keep digging to find out whether Aetna’s behavior is even more scandalous, because unique, or the scandal is much bigger in scope, because universal.  Before doing that digging, though, CNN is just hoping that the story plays out in a particular way and trying to gain attention for a conclusion based on work that it hasn’t done.

If this is modern journalism, then that’s outrageous, explosive evidence of how news companies actually function.

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Needed After Portsmouth: A Clear Picture, Not a Narrative

I didn’t plan to take up the former student’s assault of a Portsmouth High School teacher again, but something missing from the Providence Journal coverage of the released police report really should be part of the public discussion.  Specifically, reporter Katie Mulvaney leaves out the following, from the report (which I saw in full earlier but now can’t find):

[The suspect] was banging on the doors and she opened the door to redirect him to the main office.

We still don’t have sufficient details to offer a fair opinion of blame.  If the teacher recognized the former student, for example, it might be difficult to fault her for letting her guard down.

That said, what we know from the police report is that the teacher made it possible for her assailant to enter the building, and the school resource officer trailed behind the incident until it was over.  Those are very important details to keep in mind as people proclaim their opinions on what should be done following this incident.

Adding new personnel and security measures would come at a cost, not only in the money that might go to more useful purposes, but also in the environment under which students live, affecting their sense of community and expectations of the world.  Meanwhile, no security system will be immune to human error.

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The Journalist-Government Revolving Door Spins Again

Sorry to those who think I’m being unfair, but I don’t see how this isn’t a problem for Rhode Island journalism and especially the Providence Journal:

Especially coming right on the heals of Kate Bramson’s jump to Senate Policy Director under Democrat President Dominick Ruggerio, Bogdan’s move to be the new $82,699 Deputy Communications Director for Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo looks really, really bad.

I’ve had cause to point out too many times, in Tiverton, that letting your misbehaving employees gracefully retire (with all of their accumulated sick pay) sends a very strong signal to other employees that they can relax their standards.  Just so, all of these big promotions into government communications offices — or government offices of any kind — send the very strong signal to other journalists that they should be sure to keep their options open as they ask those proverbial tough questions of potential future employees.

If they were smart, Rhode Island news organizations would all initiate revolving door policies.  Of course, first they’d all have to admit the problem, and I’ve seen no sign of that.

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The Journalist-to-Government Revolving Door

Just out from the Rhode Island Senate is a press release announcing the hiring of Providence Journal reporter Kate Bramson as the chamber’s new $121,340 director of the Senate Policy Office:

Ms. Bramson was chosen from a field of 40 applicants. “Although many highly qualified individuals applied – and we are grateful to all of them – Kate was exceptional. My team and I were remarkably impressed with her deep knowledge on a wide range of issues. I have been interviewed by Kate in the past, and I always respected her thorough knowledge of the topic she was covering. My admiration grew through the interview process for this position. She is exceptionally well-versed in many areas, and particularly economic development. Kate offered the kind of analysis and insights that will serve the Senate well as we work to make our state a better place to live and work. She will be joining an outstanding staff in our Senate Policy Office.”

Every time a local journalist steps up to government (the direction it must be in pay, anyway), I’ve noted the dangerous precedent, and this is a big one.  Can people really trust journalists’ objectivity when being hired for highly contested and highly remunerated government jobs has become a regular part of their career path?

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Cover Up in the Scandal-Free Administration

Just because I think it’s important for somebody in Rhode Island to make this a topic of conversation, here’s Andrew McCarthy (no raving conspiracy theorist) detailing what appears to be a cover-up of Hillary Clinton’s private email usage, for the following reason:

From the first, these columns have argued that the whitewash of the Hillary Clinton–emails caper was President Barack Obama’s call — not the FBI’s, and not the Justice Department’s. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) The decision was inevitable. Obama, using a pseudonymous email account, had repeatedly communicated with Secretary Clinton over her private, non-secure email account.

These emails must have involved some classified information, given the nature of consultations between presidents and secretaries of state, the broad outlines of Obama’s own executive order defining classified intelligence (see EO 13526, section 1.4), and the fact that the Obama administration adamantly refused to disclose the Clinton–Obama emails. If classified information was mishandled, it was necessarily mishandled on both ends of these email exchanges.

The last paragraph, though, is the key to explaining much of our country’s experience since the election:

All cleaned up: no indictment, meaning no prosecution, meaning no disclosure of Clinton–Obama emails. It all worked like a charm . . . except the part where Mrs. Clinton wins the presidency and the problem is never spoken of again.

When one thinks of all the people who just went along with the talking point that Obama’s administration was “largely scandal free” (right down to Rhode Island’s own Arlene Violet), one can only wonder whether they understood that they meant scandal as in “what the news media makes a big deal about” rather than behavior that ought to be scandalous.  The measure of the former isn’t very helpful, meaning mainly an ability to keep the press in your corner, by which measure just about every dictator presides over a scandal-free era.

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Twisting a GOP Tax Win

Maybe it’s a subtle thing, but the bias of an AP article by Linda Johnson, to which the Providence Journal gave the online headline, “Johnson & Johnson loses $10.7B after sweeping U.S. tax changes,” seems indicative of a larger issue:

Johnson & Johnson posted a rare quarterly loss, a whopping $10.71 billion, due to a $13.6 billion charge related to last month’s U.S. tax overhaul.

While the loss was expected and the company’s adjusted results beat Wall Street expectations, shares fell more than 4 percent, an unusually big swing for the health care giant.

On Tuesday, J&J reported a big jump in sales, but that was offset by sharply higher spending on production, marketing, administration and research, partly due to one-time charges.

All of this is true, but one must read the whole article — and even between the lines — to understand what happened.  Because of the corporate tax cut, J&J repatriated money the company had been holding oversees because high taxes made that option preferable, and in doing so, the company paid taxes.  This appears to be related to the boost in expenditures, because the corporation had an inflow of newly domestic money to invest in itself.

Far from being a negative consequence of the Republicans’ tax reform, this was an intended benefit and a win for President Trump and his party.  As for the loss in share prices, they appear to be largely (if not wholly) related to other question marks, like competition from generic drug makers.

The relentless negativity of the mainstream news media toward anything that can possibly be tied to President Trump makes it more difficult for Americans to get an accurate picture of what’s happening in the world.  Once upon a time, I didn’t understand that to be the purpose of journalism.

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