Tag Archives: ethical guidelines

High Crimes against Journalism and Decency: Jeffrey Goldberg’s Insane “Trump Called Troops Suckers” Piece Is a New Low

9-11-97

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an article for The Atlantic that could harm Donald Trump’s chance to win re-election. Setting aside the controversial content of the remarks attributed to the president, it is important to note that this is an atrocious example of journalism.

You could almost call it “fake news.”

And corporate media is taking it at face value.

You may think Trump is a turd—I do. You may want him to lose the election—I do. (I also want Biden to lose, but that’s another column.) You may believe that Trump probably said what Goldberg reports—I think there’s a good chance. But everyone who cares about journalism ought to be deeply disturbed by the nonexistent sourcing for this story and its widespread acceptance by media organizations that ought to know better.

It’s easy to see why Democratic-leaning media corporations jumped all over Goldberg’s piece: it hurts the president and it reinforces militarism. But they’re degrading journalistic standards to manipulate an election.

According to Goldberg, four anonymous sources told him that Trump called American marines who died in World War I “losers” and repeatedly questioned why anyone smart would join the military or be willing to risk their life by fighting in one of America’s wars.

Anonymous sources have their place. I have used them. But basing a news story entirely on accounts of people who are unwilling to go on the record is journalistically perilous and ethically dubious. There are exceptions, as when a Mafia source fears physical retribution.

There is no such claim here. Most media organizations’ ethical guidelines are clear: news without attribution is not news. It is gossip.

            The Los Angeles Times, a publication my readers know that I hold in low regard, nevertheless takes a stance against anonymous sources. “When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving,” the paper’s ethical standards say. “An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.”

            The Atlantic piece falls way short.

Likewise, writing that strips statements of necessary context is anti-ethical. Trump, writes Goldberg, “expressed contempt for the war record of the late Senator John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. ‘He’s not a war hero,’ Trump said in 2015 while running for the Republican nomination for president. ‘I like people who weren’t captured.’” He goes on to note that Trump wanted to deny McCain the honor of lowering flags to half-mast after McCain died.

Goldberg frames Trump’s comments as part of a general bias against the military and portrays his attacks as unprovoked. Truth is, long before Trump made those comments he had been engaged in a well-documented, long-running feud with the Arizona senator. McCain based his political career on his military service and the five years he spent as a POW in Vietnam. McCain was Trump’s enemy, and there is considerable evidence that McCain—known for a sharp tongue—started the war of words. Trump gave back in kind.

“Nor did he set his campaign back by attacking the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004,” Goldberg continues in another context-free passage. Khan’s father famously spoke against Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” Khan said. In Trumpian terms, Khan started it. But Goldberg’s omission makes it look like Trump attacked a fallen soldier out of the blue.

Goldberg does this a third time: “When lashing out at critics, Trump often reaches for illogical and corrosive insults, and members of the Bush family have publicly opposed him.” Both sides have insulted each other; as far as the record shows, Trump is usually running offense, not defense—but Goldberg falsely portrays the enmity as a one-way street.

One of the praiseworthy aspects of this president is his relatively restrained approach to military interventionism, coupled with his willingness to directly engage adversaries like North Korea and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the latter which recently signed a peace agreement with the United States. It is logical for Trump, who is skeptical of illegal wars of choice like Afghanistan and Iraq, to question why people would volunteer to fight and possibly die in such a pointless conflict. For Goldberg, militarism is a state religion. Questioning it is intolerable.

Goldberg’s piece, the tone of which reads like the pro-war hysteria following 9/11, reflects the aggressively militaristic neoliberalism of the Democratic Party in 2020.

Goldberg references Trump’s 2017 visit to Arlington cemetery with then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. “A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan … Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’ Kelly (who declined to comment for this story) initially believed, people close to him said, that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.”

            Joining the military, of course, is hardly a non-transactional decision. Soldiers get paid. They get medals. They get free college. They are revered and thanked for their service. Military service gives you a leg up when you run for political office.

Moreover, Trump’s question is one Americans should be asking more often. Why would a 29-year-old man volunteer to travel to Afghanistan in order to kill the locals? No one in that country threatened the United States. No one there did us any harm. Afghans don’t want us there. Why did Robert Kelly go?

Goldberg seems obsessed with Trump’s description of fallen soldiers as suckers. “His capacious definition of sucker includes those who lose their lives in service to their country, as well as those who are taken prisoner, or are wounded in battle,” Goldberg writes. But is he wrong?

            LBJ suckered us into Vietnam with the Tonkin Gulf incident, which historians of all stripes accept was a lie.

            George H.W. Bush suckered us into the first Gulf War with a tale of Iraqi soldiers rampaging through a Kuwaiti hospital and pulling babies out of incubators. Another lie.

            After 9/11 George W. Bush suckered us into Afghanistan by saying Osama bin Laden was there—he was not.

            Of course Bush lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. More suckering. (At the time, Goldberg spread the lie that Saddam Hussein was allied with his enemy Al Qaeda.)

            Assuming that anything in Goldberg’s piece was true, Trump was right.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: All the Anonymous B.S. That’s Fit to Print: Self-Serving Newspapers Like the New York Times Ditch Their Own Ethics Rules

Image result for new york times anonymous op-ed

The most disturbing aspect of the New York Times op-ed by an anonymous “senior official in the Trump Administration” isn’t its content.

The content isn’t significant enough to make an impression.

“Meetings with [President Trump] veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back,” writes Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. The “revelation” that Trump rambles incoherently and can’t keep a thought straight is not news to anyone who has watched Trump speak more than a minute and a half.

What is scary is that the stewards of a grand 167-year-old publishing institution can cavalierly abandon the basic standards of journalism in search of a social media splash in their tepid jihad against a sitting president.

My first response upon hearing about the anonymous op-ed was to read it. What a letdown! This #ResistanceInsider narrative contains nothing we didn’t already know about Trump or his mess of a White House. A trilogy of tell-all books by Michael Wolff, Omarosa Manigault Newman and Bob Woodward, plus a day-to-day geyser of leaks, confirm that the president and his monster’s ball of astonishingly nefarious idiots act just as stupidly behind closed doors as they do when they babble in front of cameras.

Next I checked the Times’ rules for anonymous sourcing.

Reliance on anonymous sources within the government has gotten the Times burned on a number of occasions. “Times editors are cracking down on the use of anonymous sources,” public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote on March 15, 2016.

The most recent word on anonymous sources comes courtesy of Times standards editor Philip B. Corbett. “Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way,” Corbett wrote on June 14, 2018.      What was newsworthy about the “I Am Part of the Self-Congratulatory Resistance” piece? Nada. What was in there that the Times was unable to report another way? Nothing. The Times has run other pieces covering the same exact ground: “Trump’s Chaos Theory for the Oval Office Is Taking Its Toll,” March 1, 2018. “Trump Tries to Regroup as the West Wing Battles Itself,” July 29, 2017. “Does Trump Want Even More Chaos in the White House?” May 9, 2018.

Americans are weird. Smokers wake up in the morning wheezing and hocking up loogies, but they need the Surgeon General to convince them tobacco is bad for them. People who live in the same place feel the weather get warmer every year but they still aren’t sure about climate change. Jesus, people, why can’t you trust yourselves?

Now it’s the media’s Trump-bashing. These Captain Obviouses keep flailing from the ridiculous (two years in, there’s still no evidence of Russia-Trump election collusion) to the inane (Trump is cray-cray, it’s really true, some anonymous person, trust us they’re important and know what they’re talking about, says so).

The obvious truth is, Trump was impeachable the second he took office. Temperamentally and intellectually, he wasn’t ever and never will be up to the job. Chief Justice John Roberts ought to have refused to swear in this loon; Congress should have blocked him taking office; the Capitol Police shouldn’t have let him and Melania move into the White House.

The guy shouldn’t be president. Why is the Times breaking its rules to tell us what everyone already knows? Clicks?

During these times of disruption and collapse, it is tempting for struggling legacy media outlets like newspapers to discard their standards to compete with the young Turks (or Millennial techs) who often eat their lunch. But old-school institutions can only survive by maintaining their credibility. They must adhere to their own ethical guidelines, or die.

The Los Angeles Times violated numerous parts of its published Ethical Guidelines when it fired me as its staff cartoonist as a favor to the LAPD. Like the New York Times, one breach was violating their own rules about anonymous sources.

The LA Times repeatedly lied to their readers in their two articles about me. One lie was their claim that the LAPD had officially released documents that proved I had made up a story about being mistreated by a cop who ticketed me for jaywalking. Not only did the documents show I had told the truth, the LAPD wasn’t the source. It was the then-police chief, Charlie Beck, a sleazy official whose tenure was marked by one scandal after another. He was acting on his own, outside official channels, using documents of unknown provenance. Seducing a gullible publisher with a handoff of sketchy documents in a backroom meeting was par for his course.

If the LA Times had told its readers that Beck was the source, people from Santa Monica to East LA would have rolled their eyes and turned the page. Everyone knew I had been making fun of the LAPD, and Beck personally, for years. Everyone knew Beck was a turd.

So the LA Times granted Beck anonymity.

On paper, the LA Times and NY Times had similar standards. “When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers,” read the LA Times’ Ethical Guidelines, published in 2014. “We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving. Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks. An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.”

In real life, corrupt publishers and craven editors ignore their own rules. Nothing could have been more “self-serving” than the chief of police of a department whose pension fund owned the parent company of the paper firing a cartoonist who made fun of him. Since there was no actual proof I had lied — there couldn’t be since I’d told the truth — the LA Times “speculated” that I probably lied. Nothing could be more “ad hominem” than falsely accusing a journalist of lying. As police chief, Beck had no “fear or retaliation.”

I’m suing them for defamation and wrongful termination. This could have been avoided had the LA Times adhered to their own stated principles.

Even if you hate Donald Trump, it shouldn’t be hard to see that the New York Times is on a dangerous path.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)