Also, how "fake news" happens and if it's going anywhere.
Today’s read: 8 minutes.
Snake pit moats, “fake news,” and some important numbers.
Photo: Mani Albrecht / U.S. Customs and Border Protection
One year ago today.
Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter whose work was featured prominently in The Washington Post, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came out. He was beaten, tortured, killed and eventually dismembered. American intelligence officials determined that Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, was directly involved in ordering Khashoggi’s killing. Since then, no real repercussions have hit the kingdom, and journalists globally continue to call for justice.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was hospitalized with chest pain yesterday, and after a medical evaluation, he was found to have a blockage in one artery. Two stents were successfully inserted and Sen. Sanders is apparently recovering well in the hospital. His campaign team consequently canceled an upcoming event along with a television ad buy in Iowa. His team says they are “canceling his events and appearances until further notice,” suddenly sending his campaign future into question.
What D.C. is talking about.
The president’s border demands. In a shocking adaption of their new book “Border Wars,” Mike Shear and Julie Davis — two New York Times reporters — write that the president wanted to secure the border “with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate.” He also wanted the wall electrified with spikes on top and suggested privately that soldiers shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. On several occasions, the president suggested shutting down the border altogether, a move that would carry catastrophic economic repercussions. Thomas D. Homan, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), did not deny the account of events. “The president was frustrated and I think he took that moment to hit the reset button,” Homan told the reporters. “The president wanted it to be fixed quickly.”
What Republicans are saying.
Not much. Republicans, even Trump’s most ardent supporters, have been mostly quiet about the story. It’s not exactly an easy thing to defend. Hogan Gidley, the Deputy Assistant to the President, did not explicitly deny the charges in the story. “There have been so many wild, inaccurate and offensive fake news characterizations about the President’s plans to protect the American people and secure our Southern Border, but you don’t have to wonder about what he wants to do,” he said in a statement. “President Trump has clearly and publicly stated many times that he wants to make American communities safer by building a wall, closing dangerous loopholes and drug cartels, and implement a merit-based immigration system.” Trump himself also blasted the story, calling it “fake news” and apparently misspelling “moat” as “Moot.” He later deleted the tweet and re-posted with the correct spelling. Otherwise, conservatives — even Never Trumpers — have mostly taken to laughing off the story.
What Democrats are saying.
This is insanity. Cruel, heartless, absurd, the stuff of a child. Democrats are doing everything they can to remind voters that the president is incapable of responsibly holding this job, and leaks from the White House are giving them a lot of ammunition. Perhaps most importantly, they want you to know that the president’s advisors have stopped him from making incredibly damaging decisions. What would happen if he were left to his own devices?
Buried throughout the report were nuggets of revealing information, too. Included in those nuggets was Trump berating Kirstjen Nielsen, his former homeland security secretary, and telling her that Fox News’ Lou Dobbs and conservative commentator Ann Coulter hated her. This plays right into the Democrats’ talking points that the president spends all day watching television and makes decisions based on how they’ll play with Fox News or conservative Twitter. There was also a section in the story where Trump demanded that his administration seize privately owned land, begin border construction, and let the citizens who lived there sue them, then deal with it after. His staff resisted. When he suggested to a room full of border agents they could simply stop processing migrants on the border, Kevin K. McAleenan, who replaced Nielsen when she resigned, had to tell the agents to ignore POTUS. All of this illustrates just how dysfunctional he is and how over the top the White House has gotten.
As a lot of you know, the border is an issue I care deeply about. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling on the border, writing from the border, and reporting stories from the border. I also have family who live down there that I’ve been visiting or living with for extended periods of time since I was 14. I haven’t been shy about my feelings on the border wall: I think it’s a really, really stupid idea. It’s not dumb just because it won’t solve any of the problems it’s meant to (illegal immigration, drug smuggling, or violence), it’s also dumb because it costs a lot of money and it would live as a cruel symbol of division. The beauty of the border is that it’s an intersection of two worlds. Tex-Mex isn’t just a genre of food; it’s the mixing of southern American and northern Mexico culture. The understanding, respect and worship of the desert down there is something people on both sides of the border understand. The tightening of the border in the post-9/11 world, which was necessary but still sad, has separated communities that used to live amongst each other. There are plenty of ways to better enforce immigration law — more agents, more tech, more judges to process asylum cases, more incentives to stay in Mexico or Central America — but a border wall isn’t one of them.
A snake-filled moat, though? Shooting migrants in the legs? These aren’t the ideas of a frustrated commander-in-chief, as Thomas Homan tried to sell it. This is the stuff of someone woefully out of their element and completely out of ideas. It’s stuff only someone who defaults to cruelty or elementary thinking could come up with, let alone say out loud as a serious suggestion. It’s concerning, to say the least of it.
Trump supporters may see that as a lefty, B.S. take and say it’s fake news or is just “classic Trump.” That’s fine. The reporters have dozens of sources on the record and the former director of ICE, a Trump loyalist, didn’t even deny the accusations (or the context of them, i.e. he didn’t try to claim POTUS was “joking” or made the remarks in jest). It’s clearly a story that has legs, and it’s one that serves as a frightening look into both how the president problem solves and how he sees things on the border. Most days it feels like things couldn’t get any whackier, and today is definitely one of those days.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: you can ask a question by replying to this email.
Q: Considering that there seems to be an overwhelming increase in people adopting “fake news” and denouncing American journalism, with no end in sight, have we already hit the tipping point of slowly destroying such a democratic pillar in society? In other words, is it too late to fix this problem? Embarrassingly, I don’t know who I believe anymore. I’m starting to become a victim. I use to just believe and default to trust. Now I find myself questioning everything.
- Dan, Charlotte, NC
Tangle: Thanks for writing in, Dan. The proliferation of “fake news” claims and doubt in the media is, indeed, a big problem. The New York Times publisher recently wrote about how world leaders are adopting the term “fake news” and using it to dismiss legitimate reporting of their wrongdoing in less democratic countries than the United States. His op-ed on the increased threat journalists are facing globally is a worthwhile read.
Here in America, that threat is legitimate as well. Not only is “fake news” becoming a rallying call for any politician who gets coverage they don’t like, it’s also led to the next predictable place: calling journalists the “enemy” and framing them as people who are trying to hurt the country. Trump has successfully brought that language and idea into the political lexicon, and his team has an explicit strategy to discredit the press so it is easier to dismiss stories they don’t like. As a result, public trust in the media is at an all-time low. 60 percent of Americans believe that sources pay for stories (this never happens at any reliable, big newspaper — it would totally end your career), 41 percent are unlikely to believe stories with anonymous sources and most Americans believe the media is biased.
I have two overarching responses to your question and thoughts. No. 1 is that, despite claims of “fake news,” much of the most explosive reporting on this White House has actually panned out. And you can (generally) trust most big papers. The Washington Post put together an excellent list of all the things Trump has said he “has nothing to do with” that he actually had a lot to do with. You can read it here. I’ve written in Tangle before about the myth of the media bias, but the shorthand version is that the media is not a monolith. It is fractured and diverse and talking about it as one single entity makes any claim you’re making totally incoherent. The truth is there are big, mainstream options for conservative media, liberal media, unbiased media, and extremely partisan media, and just about anyone could find “news” to reinforce their own beliefs if they look hard enough. I always tell people that you should read your news and watch your sports — not the other way around. In the same vein, you can generally trust big, established papers with teams of editors, fact-checkers and public pressure on them to be honest. The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are the most reliable news sources there are. You can also trust traditional local newspapers, who often break giant national stories with dogged reporters that have intimate knowledge of their surroundings. They’re not infallible, and they often make mistakes, but they correct those mistakes or fire reporters who make them because they hold themselves to a high standard. Our media ecosystem currently works in a way where one of these three big papers produces original reporting, and the rest of the news outlets take that reporting, cherry-pick information, and bend it into the narrative they want. Of course other outlets like Politico, Axios, Fox News, TIME, The Atlantic, etc., get their own scoops. As do lots of smaller publications. But generally speaking, if you find something published in one of those three news outlets, you can trust the crux of the facts are accurate (until you find someone poking holes in them). Which brings me to point No. 2.
Your skepticism is good. Hold onto it. I don’t blindly trust what I read in any of those three papers or anywhere else. What I trust is that every story that they publish has been looked at by several people, questioned internally, fact-checked, and will be produced with the explicit knowledge that if a reporter is publishing an outright lie or gets a major fact wrong their job and reputation are on the line. Most reporters don’t try to deceive and they don’t make mistakes easily. They try to break news, be first to a story and present the most explosive, honest version of what they are uncovering. Sometimes that sends them off into sensationalism or causes them to publish factual errors. So it’s good to have skepticism and patience. Today’s story about Trump and the snake pit moat on the border is a great example. When I first read that story, my initial thought was, “no f—ing way.” It was too absurd to be true. Your B.S. detectors go off. So, the story broke last night and I waited on sharing it. I wanted to see the press’s reaction, the White House’s reaction, conservatives’ reaction. Then I saw the White House offer a non-denial. Then The Washington Post said they “confirmed the reporting” of The New York Times with their own source. Then Fox News and Wall Street Journal said the same. Then Trump tweeted out one of his vintage denials, accusing the “Fake News” of being “crazy.” And that’s when I determined the story was accurate.
Is there a chance a number of sources who are sour on Trump all worked together to feed the same story to several huge news outlets? Of course. But remember: nobody knows these sources better than the reporters who are speaking to them. They work together on a daily basis, a give and take economy where people throughout the administration are trying to constantly bend the narrative to their whim. The reporters covering this stuff are the biggest skeptics of all, and they wouldn’t publish a story like this — one that sounds so absurd on its face — unless they felt rock solid about the sources behind it and their motivations for sharing the story.
As for how this plays out, I have no idea. Public opinion can change in a hurry, and I’m hopeful that media literacy will become a core element of American democracy. If it were, I think a lot more people would trust the news and understand how mistakes happen and why they aren’t always proof of bias or deception. I think they’d understand that the “media” as a whole is actually quite intellectually diverse, and there are legitimate news sources you can find that both challenge and reaffirm your own beliefs. Of course, I also hope that this newsletter plays a role in that. Every day, I get responses to Tangle with criticism from both the left and the right, and — when it’s not for some outright mistake in fact or judgment — I believe that’s a testament to my effort to try to take on the voice of the people I’m writing about. It’s not an easy thing to do but presenting ideas across the spectrum as accurately as possible is the only way people can have real freedom of thought to make up their own minds.
Amber Guyger, the white Dallas police officer who shot and killed an unarmed African-American man named Botham Jean, has been found guilty of murder. Guyger was off-duty when she came home to her apartment, opened the door and found Botham Jean standing there. She pulled her firearm and killed Jean on-site, before realizing she was on the wrong floor and actually inside Jean’s home. The murder of an unarmed black man in his own home by an off-duty cop who killed him with her service weapon immediately sparked outrage across the country. Guyger is yet to be sentenced, but murder charges carry a five to 99-year sentence, or life in prison, in Texas. You can read more here.
Maxine Waters, the House Financial Services Committee Chair, raised a lot of eyebrows yesterday by going a step further than impeachment. Waters, a frequent target of Trump and his allies and one of the biggest Trump critics in Congress, said the president “needs to be imprisoned & placed in solitary confinement.” Her tweet immediately drew criticism from the left (for glorifying a gross prison policy) and the right (for being a bit unhinged).
On the horn.
Just days after playing it coy with the media, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conceded from Rome that he was “on the phone call” with President Trump when he brought up investigating Joe Biden to Ukraine’s president. When Pompeo was on national television last week and asked about the call, he responded “You just gave me a report about an IC whistleblower complaint. None of which I've seen,” as if he were unfamiliar with the subject matter. Now he’s admitting he was actually on the call.
- 52-38. That’s the lead Joe Biden has on Donald Trump in Erie County, PA, which swung big for Trump in 2016, according to a Mercyhurst College Poll. Warren is up 47-40 and Sanders is up 46-41.
- 28. That’s the number of times Trump has said Clinton earned 223 electoral votes, instead of the 232 she actually earned.
- $23.5 million. That’s how much Sen. Sanders raised in Q3 of his presidential race, more than any other candidate. Pete Buttigieg raised $19 million in the same time period. Andrew Yang raised $10 million.
- $125 million. That’s how much the Republican National Committee raised in Q3.
- 31 percent. That’s the percentage of Democratic primary voters who said they’d be disappointed if Marianne Williamson won the nomination, the highest of any candidate.
Have a nice day.
India is combatting climate change with streetlights. That’s right: as part of their strategy to reduce carbon emissions, India is replacing street lights with smart LEDs that are being commissioned across the country. So far, they’ve made 6.71 billion kilowatt-hours in annual energy savings and reduced 4.63 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a simple and weirdly small solution having a major impact in a country that is the No.1 greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. You can read more here.
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