How Trump’s mere existence delegitimizes Clinton’s candidacy and presidency — and what we must do about that

I can hear it now, starting on Nov. 9:

Hillary Clinton isn’t really the President. She got elected only because she ran against Donald Trump, the worst candidate in history. She didn’t destroy him; he destroyed himself. Nobody wanted to vote for her. They had to vote for her.

This is a direct extension of the media narrative we hear now about Clinton: that no one trusts her, no one likes her. That is a media lie, a manipulation, and the result of lazy journalism: When was the last time you heard the voices of the millions of enthusiastic Clinton voters reflected in media? This is how media will be accessories to the Trump, alt right, and GOP crime of attempting to delegitimize another American Presidency.

Media already began the process by abnormalizing Clinton. You’ve heard this:

Yes, Donald Trump is a misogynist and has admitted committing sexual assault and he is a bigot who has attacked Mexicans as rapists and murderers and Muslims as terrorists and he has defamed African-American communities as hells ruled by crime and drug-dealing. But in our next segment, we will tell you for the thousandth time about Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Yes, Donald Trump’s foundation is a sham that he uses to settle his personal debts and enrich his ego, and he defaults on his promises to charities and causes. But when we come back, we will cast aspersions on Hillary and Bill Clinton’s foundation, even though we have no journalistic evidence of wrongdoing, even though the Clinton foundation does immense good work saving lives and helping people, and even though we in media won’t tell you about all that good work.

Because balance.

Of course, at the same time, media normalized Donald Trump, giving him attention that was wildly disproportionate to his popularity at the beginning of the campaign — making his campaign a reality — and later refusing to call ignorant ignorant and evil evil. NPR won’t call Trump a liar because that is a “volatile” word. Media fell over itself praising The New York Times for calling his lies lies; why did we not expect that all along? Media knew he was a misogynist, a sexist pig, yet they had to wait for the Clinton campaign to do their reporting for them to break into their narrative with incidents that told the story. Media have seen his racism again and again but refuse to call him a bigot. That, too, would be too volatile.

So in their effort to find balance — as Jay Rosen points out, in their effort to cope with the asymmetry of this campaign (and years of political imbalance leading up to this) — media raised up Donald Trump to the nearest definition of normal they could muster and they pulled Hillary Clinton down to as near as his level of mistrust and mendacity as they could get away with because that serves the dynamics that drive their business: conflict and suspense.

And along the way, I keep hearing media doing the democratically irresponsible: suppressing voter turnout by predicting it. (That supports their narrative: Nobody trust, likes, or cares.) And now leaders of the GOP are giving their own reprehensible civics lesson: At last, at long last, some of them are repudiating Donald Trump — not because he has been a racist to Latinos, Muslims, and African-Americans, not because he is a misogynist, not because he lies, not because he is ignorant, not because he is dangerous, but because he finally crossed the White Woman Line. Yet those same politicians now legitimize the idea of not voting for President. That also delegitimizes the victor, Hillary Clinton. You’ll hear this, too:

Well, we didn’t vote for her. We didn’t have anyone to vote for. So we’re not going to work with her. We’re going to continue what we’ve done for a generation: only working against her, only blocking anything she proposes to do. For we will never let her win, not the White House, not a single battle, not so much as a bill.

This is why it is critical that we defeat not only Donald Trump but also the party that put him where he is and the politicians who were his accessories. Every politician who supported him — no matter whether that support is now withdrawn — has the stench of Trump and the alt right on them and that cannot be washed away with a press release and a tweet. The party that fertilized the fetid ground that spawned Trump with its years of insurgent obstruction must be held to account for not caring to defend Latinos, Muslims, and blacks, let alone our military— and responsible government — but only white women.

We do need balance in a democracy or else there can be no dialog and legitimacy of negotiated compromise. We need for conservatives to be represented in the political process and heard in media. We need a new conservative movement to rise from the ashes of the fire that not just Trump but a generation of GOP leaders and right-wing media set. We on the left should support the rebuilding of a responsible, loyal opposition. I am writing another post with a call to build responsible conservative media as well, to fill the vacuum that liberal — yes, liberal — media left, which was exploited by political movements masquerading as media: Fox News (now 20 years ago — everything I lament here is the fruit of their labor) and its foster children Breitbart and Drudge.

Consider this: In losing, Trump and the disgusting movement behind him will win. Their goal is to bring down institutions and they have already succeeded. They have destroyed the Republican Party. They will continue to delegitimize the Democratic Party and its victory. They will thus delegitimize government. They have lowered the quality of political discourse in this country to their level. Yes, they have won.

That is why it is so vital that we take back our victory from them. That is why I am going to Pennsylvania every chance I get to register voters. That is why you must vote and push every sane and civilized family member, friend, neighbor, and coworker to vote. That is why every fellow Hillary Clinton supporter out there must loudly proclaim her or his support. That is why we must defeat every politician who cynically supported Trump — whether or not they then cynically withdrew that support. That is why we must recapture the American dream from the Trump nightmare.

My friend Rafat Ali — an immigrant, an entrepreneur, an American citizen, a voter — just posted this quote by Bertolt Brecht from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941):

“Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Rejoice in her victory. But do not allow the bastard’s fathers to snatch victory from their defeat.

‘Change’ is bullshit

I ended up voting for Barack Obama, but while he was in a race against Hillary Clinton his campaign slogan drove me to distraction. “Change we can believe in.” What change exactly?

This morning Joe Scarborough said the first debate of this campaign didn’t alter the situation in this election. He said this is still a race of the experienced candidate against the change candidate. Now Donald Trump=change.

Clinton is forever boxed into the position of running against “change.” Now it is not only Trump but also, ironically, Obama who corners her there because she wisely wants to run on and continue Obama’s legacy with his coalition; she can’t change too much. Still, she can address this problem by cataloging the changes she will make; there are many.

But “change” is the wrong word. “Change” is bullshit. “Change” is an empty word, a vague promise. Obama promised “change” and it was a vessel into which his supporters poured their dreams. The most progressive among them were disappointed in the early years of his administration because he did not quickly accomplish all they had wished for. I was not disappointed, for I had more realistic expectations of change.

The proper word is not “change” but “progress.” But that word has its own set of expectations and cooties thanks to the far left and right, respectively. So call it “improvement.” Hillary Clinton will work to improve health care,college costs, infrastructure, criminal justice, mental health, national security, the environment, taxation, campaign finance, the status of womenand minorities….

Donald Trump does not promise change. He promises regression, returning to some squandered glory of the hegemony his supporters have lost because of change they could not control, change they resent, change that shares what they think of as their jobs, power, and birthright with others, with outsiders. Trump is not promising to change. He is promising to stop change.

Of course, change is occurring without the intervention of any candidate. Change is the constant. Change brings us choices: opportunities and perils. That is what a leader must concern herself with.

Clinton is a realist. She is experienced. She has policies and plans. All those proper qualifications for the highest office in the land become handicaps in a media environment that values instead slogans, performance, conflict, entertainment, and personality over substance. “Make American great again.”

After Scarborough spoke this morning, Chuck Todd complained that after last night’s debate voters don’t know much more about the candidates’ policies. First, that’s wrong. Clinton tried to cram specific policy proposals into her few uninterrupted minutes and for the rest she gave her web address; plenty there. Trump refused to and could not be pushed to be specific about the plans he does not have. If voters do not know what each candidate will do and is capable of doing the fault lies at the feet of the media. It is our job to inform the public. The public is ill-informed. Donald Trump’s presence on that stage last night is the evidence. He promises nothing but change. And we let him get away with it.

My Facebook op-ed

Aftenposten asked me to adapt my Medium post about the Facebook napalm photo incident as an op-ed. Here it is in Norwegian. Here is the English text:

Text:

Facebook needs an editor — to stop Facebook from editing.

An editor might save Facebook from making embarrassing and offensive judgments about what will offend, such as its decision last week requiring writer Tom Egeland, Aftenposten editor Espen Egil Hansen, then Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to take down a photo of great journalistic meaning and historic importance: Nick Ut’s image of Vietnamese girl Kim Phúc running from a 1972 napalm attack after tearing off her burning clothes. Only after Hansen wrote an eloquent, forceful, and front-page letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did the service relent.

Facebook’s reflexive decision to take down the photo is a perfect example of what I would call algorithmic thinking, the mindset that dominates the kingdom that software built, Silicon Valley. Facebook’s technologists, from top down, want to formulate rules and then enable algorithms to enforce those rules. That’s not only efficient (who can afford the staff to make these decisions with more than a billion people posting every day?) but they also believe it’s fair, equally enforced for all. As they like to say in Silicon Valley, it scales.

The rule that informed the algorithm in this case was clear: If a photo portrays a child (check) who is naked (check) then the photo is rejected. The motive behind that rule could not be more virtuous: eliminating the distribution of child pornography. But in this case, of course, the naked girl did not constitute child pornography. No, the pornography here is a tool of war, which is what Ut’s photo so profoundly portrays.

Technology scales but life does not and that is a problem Facebook of all companies should recognize, for Facebook is the post-mass company. Mass media treat everyone the same because that’s what Gutenberg’s invention demands; the technology of printing scales by forcing media to publish the exact same product for thousands unto millions of readers. Facebook, on the other hand, does not treat us all alike. Like Google, it is a personal services company that gives every user a unique service, no two pages ever the same. The problem with algorithmic thinking, paradoxically, is that it continues the mass mindset, treating everyone who posts and what they post exactly the same, under a rule meant to govern every circumstance.

The solution to Facebook’s dilemma is to insert human judgment into its processes. Hansen is right that editors cannot live with Zuckerberg and company as master editor. Facebook would be wise to recognize this. It should treat editors of respected, quality news organizations differently and give them the license to make decisions. Facebook might want to consider giving editors an allocation of attention they can use to better inform their users. It should allow an editor of Hansen’s stature to violate a rule for a reason. I am not arguing for a class system, treating editors better than the masses. I am arguing only that recognizing signals of trust, authority, credibility, and quality will improve Facebook’s recommendations and service.

When there is disagreement , and there will be, Facebook needs a process in place — a person: an editor — who can negotiate on the company’s behalf. The outsider needn’t always win; this is still Facebook’s service, brand, and company and in the end it has the right to decide what it distributes just as much as Hansen has the right to decide what appears in these pages. That is not censorship; it is editing. But the outsider should at least be heard: in short, respected.

If Facebook would hire an editor, would that not be the definitive proof that Facebook is what my colleagues in media insist it is: media? We in media tend to look at the world, Godlike, in our own image. We see something that has text and images (we insist on calling that content ) with advertising (we call that our revenue) and we say it is media, under the egocentric belief that everyone wants to be like us.

Mark Zuckerberg dissents. He says Facebook is not media. I agree with him. Facebook is something else, something new: a platform to connect people, anyone to anyone, so they may do what they want. The text and images we see on Facebook’s pages (though, of course, it’s really just one endless page) is not content. It is conversation. It is sharing. Content as media people think of it is allowed in but only as a tool, a token people use in their conversations. Media are guests there.

Every time we in media insist on squeezing Facebook into our institutional pigeonhole, we miss the trees for the forest: We don’t see that Facebook is a place for people — people we need to develop relationships with and learn to serve in new ways. That, I argue, is what will save journalism and media from extinction: getting to know the needs of people as individuals and members of communities and serving them with greater relevance and value as a result. Facebook could help us learn that.

An editor inside Facebook could explain Facebook’s worldview to journalists and explain journalism’s ethics, standards, and principles to Facebook’s engineers. For its part, Facebook still refuses to fully recognize the role it plays in helping to inform society and the responsibility — like it or not — that now rests on its shoulders. What are the principles under which Facebook operates? It is up to Mark Zuckerberg to decide those principles but an editor — and an advisory board of editors — could help inform his thinking. Does Facebook want to play its role in helping to better inform the public or just let the chips fall where they may (a question journalists also need to grapple with as we decide whether we measure our worth by our audience or by our impact)? Does Facebook want to enable smart people — not just editors  but authors and prime ministers and citizens— to use its platform to make brave statements about justice? Does Facebook want to have a culture in which intelligence — human intelligence — wins over algorithms? I think it does.

So Facebook should build procedures and hire people who can help make that possible. An editor inside Facebook could sit at the table with the technologists, product, and PR people to set policies that will benefit the users and the company. An editor could help inform its products so that Facebook does a better job of enlightening its users, even fact-checking users when they are about to share the latest rumor or meme that has already been proven false through journalists’ fact-checking. An editor inside Facebook could help Facebook help the journalism survive by informing the news industry’s strategy, teaching us how we must go to our readers rather than continuing to make our readers come to us.

But an editor inside Facebook should not hire journalists, create content, or build a newsroom. That would be a conflict of interest, not to mention a bad business decision. No, an editor inside Facebook would merely help make a better, smarter Facebook for us all.

Who should do that job? Based on his wise letter to Mark Zuckerberg, I nominate Mr. Hansen.

15 years later

Fifteen years later, the one odd vestige of that day that still affects me is that my emotions are left vulnerable. It reveals itself in the most ridiculous moments: an obvious tear-jerking moment in a movie, a TV show, someone talking. In these manipulative moments, my emotions are too easily manipulated. I can’t help but feel it well up. I realize what is happening and why and I tamp it back down. But this is how I am reminded when I least expect to be.

And then there are the photos I cannot bear to look at. The worst for me — I can barely type the words — is the falling man photo. It brings back the images I wrote about once in my news report of the events and never speak of again.

I haven’t yet been able to bear the idea of going to the 9/11 museum. I don’t much like going to the memorial, which is beautiful, yes, but it is a hole in our city and souls.

On this morning at this moment, as I type this, hearing the bell that marks the minute when the second plane hit the south tower brings back the feeling of the heat I felt on the other side of the impact and then I cry.

We said we would never forget. It is not easy to remember.

* * *

Here is the story I wrote for the Star-Ledger the afternoon of the attacks.

Here is my oral history of my experience on 9/11, recorded (badly) a few days after the event.

Here is a meditation I delivered on the jahreszeit of 9/11 in my church, when I read the Kaddish.

Here are the tweets I posted remembering each moment as it passed ten years later.

Dear Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mark Zuckerberg

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Facebook needs an editor — to stop Facebook from editing. It needs someone to save Facebook from itself by bringing principles to the discussion of rules.

There is actually nothing new in this latest episode: Facebook sends another takedown notice over a picture with nudity. What is new is that Facebook wants to take down an iconic photo of great journalistic meaning and historic importance and that Facebook did this to a leading editor, Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief of Aftenposten, who answered forcefully:

The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons. This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California…. Editors cannot live with you, Mark, as a master editor.

Facebook has found itself — or put itself — in other tight spots lately, most recently the trending topics mess, in which it hired and then fired human editors to fix a screwy product.

In each case, my friends in media point their fingers, saying that Facebook is media and thus needs to operate under media’s rules, which my media friends help set. Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is not media.

On this point, I will agree with Zuckerberg (though this isn’t going to get him off the hook). As I’ve said before, we in media tend to look at the world, Godlike, in our own image. We see something that has text and images (we insist on calling that content ) with advertising (we call that our revenue) and we say it is media, under the egocentric belief that everyone wants to be like us.

No, Facebook is something else, something new: a platform to connect people, anyone to anyone, so they may do whatever they want. The text and images we see on Facebook’s pages (though, of course, it’s really just one endless page, a different page for every single user) is not content. It is conversation. It is sharing. Content as we media people think of it is allowed in but only as a tool, a token people use in their conversations. We are guests there.

Every time we in media insist on squeezing Facebook into our institutional pigeonhole, we miss the trees for the forest: We miss understanding that Facebook is a place for people, people we need to develop relationships with and learn to serve in new ways. It’s not a place for content.

For its part, Facebook still refuses to acknowledge the role it has in helping to inform society and the responsibility — like it or not — that now rests on its shoulders. I’ve written about that here and so I’ll spare you the big picture again. Instead, in these two cases, I’ll try to illustrate how an editor — an executive with an editorial worldview — could help advise the company: its principles, its processes, its relationships, and its technology.

The problem at work here is algorithmic thinking. Facebook’s technologists, top down, want to formulate a rule and then enable an algorithm to enforce that rule. That’s not only efficient (who needs editors and customer-service people?) but they also believe it’s fair, equally enforced for all. It scales.Except life doesn’t scale and that’s a problem Facebook of all companies should recognize as it is the post-mass-media company, the company that does not treat us all alike; like Google, it is a personal-services company that gives every user a unique service and experience. The problem with algorithmic thinking, paradoxically, is that it continues a mass mindset.

In the case of Aftenposten and the Vietnam napalm photo, Hansen is quite right that editors cannot live with Mark et al as master editor. Facebook would be wise to recognize this. It should treat editors of respected, quality news organizations differently and give them the license to make decisions. Here I argued that Facebook might want to consider giving editors an allocation of attention they can use to better inform their users. In this current case, the editor can decide to post something that might violate a rule for a reason; that’s what editors do. I’m not arguing for a class system, treating editors better. I’m arguing that recognizing signals of trust, authority, credibility will improve Facebook’s recommendation and service. (As a search company, Google understands those signals better and this is the basis of the Trust Project Google is helping support.)

When there is disagreement , and there will be, Facebook needs a process in place — a person: an editor — who can negotiate on the company’s behalf. The outside editor needn’t always win; this is still Facebook’s service, brand, and company. But the outside editor should be heard: in short, respected.

These decisions are being made now on two levels: The rule in the algorithm spots a picture of a naked person (check) who is a child (check!) and kills it (because naked child equals child porn). The rule can’t know better. The algorithm should be aiding a human court of appeal who understand when the rule is wrong. On the second level, the rule is informed by the company’s brand protection: “We can’t ever allow a naked child to appear here.” We all get that. But there is a third level Facebook must have in house, another voice at the table when technology, PR, and product come together: a voice of principle.

What are the principles under which Facebook operates? Facebook should decide but an editor — and an advisory board of editors — could help inform those principles. Does Facebook want to play its role in helping to better inform the public or just let the chips fall where they may (something journalists also need to grapple with)? Does it want to enable smart people — not just editors — to make brave statements about justice? Does it want to have a culture in which intelligence — human intelligence — rules? I think it does. So build procedures and hire people who can help make that possible.

Now to the other case, trending topics . You and Facebook might remind me that here Facebook did hire people and that didn’t help; it got them in hot water when those human beings were accused of having human biases and the world was shocked!

Here the problem is not the algorithm, it is the fundamental conception of the Trending product. It sucks. It spits out crap. An algorithmist might argue that’s the public’s fault: we read crap so it gives us crap — garbage people in, garbage links out. First, just because we read it doesn’t mean we agree with it; we could be discussing what crap it is. Second, the world is filled with a constant share of idiots, bozos, and trolls and a bad algorithm listens to them and these dogs of hell know how to game the algorithm to have more influence on it. But third — the important part — if Facebook is going to recommend links, which Trending does, it should take care to recommend good links. If its algorithm can’t figure out how to do that then kill it. This is a simple matter of quality control. Editors can sometimes help with that, too.