Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)

After an end of the semester break – we are back. With all new questions!

  • Is this the changing of the guard? MSNBC on top, Fox on bottom
    No probably not. But it is no longer automatic that Fox News will have the biggest audiences in cable news. Last week MSNBC won the ratings war in several of the most important categories, including prime time audience in the prized 25-54 demographic and in total viewers. It also was the second-most watched network on basic cable, falling only to TNT – which was airing NBA playoff games. Biggest reason for MSNBC’s success? Host Rachel Maddow. Who proves that you can put a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University Political Science PhD on the air and attract a big audience of people who want smart, thoughtful analysis of the news.I don’t believe this is the end of Fox News, but it does mean that the network needs to reconsider what they are doing.  I don’t think Fox needs to abandon its conservative orientation, but perhaps it needs to reconsider its evening devotion to conspiracy theories.
  • Is Trump Really Getting Lots of Negative Coverage?
    Yup – According to Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, coverage of the Trump administration has been overwhelmingly negative. But is this “bias” (whatever that is), or is it because that’s the way the news about the Trump administration is? Interestingly enough, even the news out of Fox is more than 50 percent negative….
  • What Does C-SPAN’s Audience Look Like?
    This is usually a pretty hard question to answer, but every four years, the non-profit public affairs network takes an in-depth look at its audience. They just recently published the latest version.  Among the details? Approximately 70 million US adults watch C-SPAN at some point over a six-month period.
  • What is Apple’s most exciting new product?
    A pizza box! No, not an early Y2K pizza box shaped computer. An actual pizza box for its cafeteria that lets workers take a pizza back to their cubicles without the pizza going soggy.
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And now you know… the rest of the story

Followup to several stories we’ve been talking about here:

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What do we talk about when we talk about fake news – Part 3

This is the final day of sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.

Jon Stewart & Daily Show

During his infamous 2004 appearance as a guest on CNN’s political debate show Crossfire, co-host Tucker Carlson tried to compare the questions Jon Stewart asked presidential candidate John Kerry on his show with those Crossfire would have asked, Stewart’s response was:

“If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to.”

“You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”

During liberal co-host Paul Begala’s introduction to the episode, he introduced Stewart as “the most trusted man in fake news.”

It was during this time that many Americans came to know Stewart as the king of “fake news.” But this was a different kind of fake news.  It was not made up stories designed to influence politics or draw clicks to web pages more devoted to selling advertising than presenting information. Instead, Stewart used the term to refer to his brand of satirical news that had its roots in the world of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.

Fake News in the era of Trump

Fake news today takes on a wide range of forms including all of those we’ve talked about so far:

Analysis and Conclusions

Christopher Lasch –Postmodernism

Of course, the problem of the media providing factual accounts is not unique to literary journalists.  Christopher Lasch, in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, argues that in postmodern culture we are beginning to question the very existence of factuality as a significant concept:

“[T]he rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence.  Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.”

What Lasch is saying is that it is not the truth or falsity of a statement that matters so much as whether people will accept it as valid.  Lasch illustrates his point with an example from the Nixon administration:

President Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, once demonstrated the political use of these techniques when he admitted that his previous statements on Watergate had become “inoperative.”  Many commentators assumed that Ziegler was groping for a euphemistic way of saying that he had lied.  What he meant, however, was that his earlier statements were no longer believable.  Not their falsity but their inability to command assent rendered them “inoperative.”  The question of whether they were true or not was beside the point.”

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What do we talk about when we talk about fake news? Part 2

Over three days I’m sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.

Modern Day Fabrications

Let us now jump ahead to the 1980s and 90s and see several examples of fake news fabrications done primarily to provide a boost to individuals hoping to boost their careers and publications hoping to boost their readership.

Janet Cooke and Jimmy’s World

Legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee calls the Janet Cooke story the lowest point in the history of the fabled newspaper.


Cooke was hired by the Washington Post to improve its coverage of the African-American community.  She was a young black woman who claimed to have a degree from Vassar, and she was a fantastic writer.  On Sunday, September 28, 1980, Cooke delivered just the kind of story she had been hired to write – a compelling account of an eight-year-old boy named Jimmy who was a heroin addict being shot up by his mother’s boyfriend.  Although the story was compelling, unfortunately it  wasn’t true–something  that was not discovered until the story was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.  Days after Cooke won the award, reporters discovered that her college credentials had been fabricated, and soon she confessed that the story had been made up, too.

Fourteen years later after Cooke’s story was written, retired Post editor Ben Bradlee was still haunted by the story and by the blow it delivered to the paper’s credibility: “That was a terrible blot on our reputation.  I’d give anything to wipe that one off.”

Stephen Glass’s “too good to be true” stories

Consider the following case: A twenty-five-year-old writer named Stephen Glass had written incredible stories for the New Republic, Rolling Stone, George, and Harper’s. Other writers—some would say jealous colleagues—thought Glass’s stories, with their customary “wow” opening paragraphs that set the scene, were too good to be true. Unfortunately, they were. In 1998, Glass was caught fabricating an article for the New Republic about teenage hackers, and his subsequent firing sent shock waves throughout the magazine industry. Follow-up investigations suggested that Glass had fabricated material for dozens of articles without the magazines’ fact-checkers catching on.

Said Charles Lane, then the editor of the New Republic, “I don’t wish [Glass] ill. . . . I just don’t want him to be in journalism.”[ii] After becoming the poster boy for bad journalism, Glass left the magazine business, went to law school, and wrote a novel. Following the critical and commercial failure of his novel, Glass has reportedly worked as a paralegal and as an occasional member of a Los Angeles comedy troupe.

How did Glass get away with his fabrications? First, the magazines didn’t conduct fact-checking as well as they should have. Second, Glass would submit articles late so that they couldn’t be checked, and he would fabricate substantiation for them, such as a phony Web page and voice mail message for the beleaguered high-tech company in the hacker story.[iv] In an article for the political magazine George, Glass wrote a description of presidential advisor Vernon Jordan based on anonymous sources. He avoided the fact-checking by saying that his sources would be fired if they were contacted at work. After editors found out that Glass had been fabricating articles, fact-checkers discovered that the sources he had cited didn’t exist. To be fair to the fact-checkers, their procedures were designed to catch mistakes, not outright fabrications.

One result of the fallout from Glass’s fabrications was a renewed commitment to fact-checking at magazines; another was increased skepticism toward sensational stories, especially by young writers.

Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith at the Boston Globe

Patricia Smith resigned from the Boston Globe after being asked to do so by the editor. The winner of numerous writing awards during her eight years at the Globe, Smith admitted she had simply made up names and quotes in some of her columns. In her farewell column, she apologized to her readers:

“From time to time in my metro column, to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn’t exist. I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn’t give them what they needed most—a heartbeat. As anyone who’s ever touched a newspaper knows, that’s one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shall not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses.”

That same summer, another Boston Globe writer came under fire. Mike Barnicle, a long-time columnist for the paper and one of its best-known writers, came under suspicion for a number of reasons. In one case, jokes that had appeared in George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings also showed up, unattributed, in Barnicle’s column. Barnicle denied that he had read Carlin’s book, yet it was soon pointed out that he had reviewed the book for a local television station. He was left in the uncomfortable position of having to either admit that he had lied about not reading the book or confess that he had given a rave review to a book he hadn’t read.

Barnicle was originally given a lengthy suspension from the paper rather than being fired, largely because he was popular with readers. But then a second fabrication was discovered. Several years earlier, Barnicle had written a touching column about two boys—one black, one white—who shared a hospital room while they were being treated. When the black child died, Barnicle wrote, the white parents gave the black parents $10,000. In preparing to reprint the article, Reader’s Digest fact checkers investigated the story but found no one at any Boston hospital who could remember such a case taking place. After this became public knowledge, Barnicle resigned from the Globe.

(Barnicle later moved to hosting radio commentary on WTKK in Boston; being a regular guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program; and writing for a number of different publications, including the Boston Herald, Time magazine, and Huffington Post.[3] Since leaving newspaper journalism, Smith has been a successful poetry writer and performer.)

In addition to the shame of dealing with two ethical lapses in one summer, the Globe also had to confront charges that it had been harsh with Smith, a black woman, while giving Barnicle, a white man, a second chance. Brill’s Content, a media criticism magazine, even suggested that problems with Smith’s columns had been ignored for several years because confronting them would have forced editors to address similar charges that had been leveled against Barnicle.

Tomorrow – Part 3: Jon Stewart; the era of Donald Trump.

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What do we talk about when we talk about fake news? Part 1

Over the next three days I’m going to be sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.


What is fake news

The modern conception of the term fake news can likely date back to the start of Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. While The Daily Show has been on the air since July 21, 1996, with founding host Craig Kilborn and his guest Democratic operative David Axelrod. But the show did not really make its mark on American news culture until stand up comic Jon Stewart took over as host in January of 1999.  Over his 17-year run, Stewart would continue to maintain that he was a comic, not a newsman.

2004 was the year that brought fake news to the attention of American news consumers.  As can be seen in Table 1,  there were almost as many mentions of “fake news” in the Washington Post in 2004 as there had been in total between 1999 and 2003. And many of these were of Jon Stewart and his news-based comedy and satire.

But then in 2014, something new started to happen.  There was a sharp uptick in the use of the term “fake news,” with 51 mentions, followed by 60 mentions in 2015. The year 2016 brought an explosion in the use of “fake news” with 387 mention, of which 223 of them mentioned presidential candidate Donald Trump. That was just a beginning, however. The first three months of 2017 brought 846 mentions, of which 658 included mentions of Trump, and only 3 mentioned Stewart.

The uses of the term “fake news” since 2015 have been legion, including satire, hoaxes, partisan clickbait, foreign political manipulation, and general purpose media criticism.

This snapshot look at fake news does not give the full context of how we have seen made-up, satirical, and yes, fake news in the media industry.  This paper does not attempt to provide a comprehensive look at the history of fake news.  Instead, it is providing a series of snapshots of moments in fake news history.

Year Mentions Stewart Trump
1999 5 0
2000 2 0
2001 3 0
2003 6 0
2004 17 11
2005 23 3
2006 21 7
2007 17 5
2008 9 2
2009 12 3
2010 11 8
2011 10 3
2012 4 3
2013 6 1
2014 51 3 1
2015 60 13 5
2016 387 3 223
2017 846 3 658


Table 1

Samuel Johnson – 1700s in Britain

Readers in some eras have accepted fictitious reports as journalism. Tom Koch, in his book “The News as Myth, Fact and Context in Journalism” (1990) talks about how in the 1730s and 40s, the British parliament passed a law making it illegal for journalists to report on the debates and actions of parliament. So Edward Cave, publisher of Gentlemen’s Magazine,  started running columns that were supposedly accounts of the “Parliament of Lilliput,” but there were really thinly disguised accounts of the real British parliament, largely written by that great man of British letters, Samuel Johnson.

Johnson’s fictionalized (and entertaining) accounts of the actions of the British parliament during the 1730s and 1740s were acceptable to readers because they understood that British law banned direct reporting on the actions of parliament. So these were “fake news” that were designed to tell “true” stories through the use of what was clearly fiction.  Koch writes:

“Indeed, most of the Parliament of Lilliput copy was, by modern journalistic standards, pure fabrication. It carried the sense of the events in Parliament but almost never the actual words or actions of its members.”

Mark Twain – Civil War Era in the United States

Plaque at site of Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada.

Mark Twain travelled west to live in Nevada Territory from 1861 – 1864.  He had deserted from the Confederate army and needed to get away from the actual United States for a while until things calmed down.

During that time, Twain spent considerable time working for the newspaper The Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada.

While there, he engaged in writing hoaxes that were known as “quaints.” Often these were done with the purpose of making a point for the reader, getting at some kind of higher truth. Take, for example, Twain’s story A BLOODY MASSACRE NEAR CARSON. In it, he tells a true story of corruption in the San Francisco market. But he hides the charges in a satirical story about a fictional massacre. But the satire was subtle enough that few readers recognized it as such, and the story was widely reprinted as fact.

This is something that we see Twain engaging in on a regular basis. Sometimes writing satire that is so subtle that it is missed; other times he is deliberately tweaking friends or public figures.

Twain’s “interesting stories” for the Enterprise were sometimes told as stories that were clearly meant to be believed, while others were told as tall tales that had no expectation of acceptance. Twain’s stories throughout his book Roughing It (which chronicles his trip west), frequently take on a blur between fact and fiction. George Plimpton, in his introduction to the Oxford Mark Twain edition of Roughing It has this to say about the nature of “truth” in the book:

“As I read along… I noticed about Twain’s asides that the truth is almost invariably stretched to the breaking point in order to give the incident or character a comic twist, and yet the reader never moans, “Oh, come off it!” It is part of Twain’s genius that he keeps us on the delicate edge of credulity — a condition which humorists, especially those who perform on the stage, strive to imitate. Every time a humorist confides to his audience that what is about to be told is a “true story,” one can be fairly sure that it will be nothing of the sort. Even Twain falls back on this on occasion. “That anecdote is true,” he insists after telling a story in Roughing It about a grizzled miner, long in the fields, who pays one hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of gold dust in a pouch to kiss a two-year-old child” (Plimpton 1996, pg. XXXII).

Plimpton goes on to note that Twain often builds his stories, starting with a reasonably believable story, goes to an exaggerated story, and finishes up with something that is absurd.

And yet, there are stories that at the time were almost unbelievable but were nevertheless rooted in fact. For example, a joke that he tells about a doctor in Utah being a vagrant is not strict fact, but even today Utah has a healthier population than any other state.

Twain learned about traditional journalism from two members of Enterprise staff: Dan De Quille and Joe Goodman. But Twain became bored with straight reporting about the mining industry. Twain became interested in the fanciful “quaints” that De Quille had been writing. Twain developed his use of the exaggerated story and his use of the “wink” to let people know it’s all a joke – something that many people missed.

It is easy to sit in judgment of Twain for his “fake news” – his out-and-out hoaxes, but we need to keep a couple of points in mind here. First, newspapers were the only locally produced media of consequence in Virginia City. To be sure, magazines and books would find their way in, but newspaper was the television, radio and cinema of its day. So providing entertainment to the reader was a basic part of the paper. Second, truth was something that was in short supply in Nevada at the time. Roughing It is full of accounts of unscrupulous men conning their neighbors with “salted” mines, worthless stock, and vague rumors.

Tomorrow – Part 2: Modern Day Hoaxes

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Pepsi, United, and Sean Spicer in a race to see who can be worst at PR

UPDATE: Special new United nasty message to full fare first class passenger.

Presented with little further commentary, tweets explaining why Pepsi, United Airlines, and the Trump administration have had a bad week in communicating with their publics:

It started with Pepsi and their tone-deaf ad using a #BlackLivesMatter march theme to sell Pepsi:

And a response to this ad from Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter:

But then United Airlines got into the act:

And then in an amazing bit of bad timing by PRWeek US, dated March 16, 2017:

Here is PR Week’s response today to their amazingly bad call:

NEW TWEET: And the hits keep coming for United: Some great reporting from the LA Times.

And it was as if Sean Spicer, President Trump’s press secretary tried to say, “Hey, I can do better than either United or Pepsi by comparing Syria’s President Assad to Hitler:

The “hold my beer” meme seems to have taken total hold here.  Here’s one example:

And because you can never have enough variations of the “hold my beer” meme, here’s one last one:

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High School Journalism Students in Pittsburg, Kansas Take Down High School Principal With Questionable Credentials

Story about Pittsburg High School students is most read story on Washington Post web site Wednesday.Pittsburg, Kansas is not a city that shows up much in the national media. Before this week, there had only been about four mentions of the city in the Washington Post over the last decade.  One was when Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate died in 2015. (Tate got his bachelor’s degree from Kansas State College there in 1965.) Before that, it was when Pittsburg State University wide receiver John Brown was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2014. There were also brief mentions of the death of a judge who had been born there and the fact that an unnamed Fortune 500 CEO had been born there.

But on Wednesday the most-read story on The Washington Post’s web site was about a group of Pittsburg High School students who discovered through dogged journalistic research that their high schools newly hired principal had questionable educational credentials.  That story, reported in the school paper The Booster Redux on Friday, March 31, resulted in the new principal, Amy Robertson, resigning her post following a school board meeting on Tuesday evening of this week.

Seventeen-year-old Connor Balthazar told the Washington Post that “There were some things that just didn’t quite add up,” about things Robertson. Reporting on the story was done by a team of six high school students.   In their story, the students wrote:

“The Booster Redux Staff typically introduces each new administrator at PHS with a news story. During the interview process with Robertson, the Booster staff found inconsistencies in Robertson’s credentials. The staff presented these concerns to Pittsburg Community School superintendent Destry Brown, who encouraged the Booster reporters to reach out to Robertson.

“On March 16, the Booster staff held a conference call with the incoming principal. Booster adviser Emily Smith and Brown were also present. During the call, Robertson presented incomplete answers, conflicting dates and inconsistencies in her responses.

“After the conference call interview, the staff conducted further research online by phone interview to confirm her credentials. These are the findings.”

And what a set of findings they were:

  • Robertson claimed to have a master’s degree and Ph.D from Corllins University in Stockton, California.
  • But the students’ research showed no signs in property records that there had ever been a university by that name in Stockton, no U.S. Department of education records documenting the university, no sign of an active web site of the university, and an online article that referred to Corllins University as a diploma mill.
  • Robertson claimed to have bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts from Tulsa University. While TU is a very real school, the students found that it has never offered a BFA in theater.

PHS senior Trina Paul, part of the reporting team, told the Kansas City Star that the students just were concerned about Robertson’s credentials. “She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted to be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials.  We stumbled on some things that most might not consider legitimate credentials.”

Following the publication of the story, the Pittsburg Community Schools Board of Education held a special meeting, and following a brief closed session, Robertson resigned, the Star reports.

The students are normally advised by their award-winning journalism teacher Emily Smith, but she had to recuse herself on this story, she told the Washington Postbecause she had been on the search committee that had hired Robertson. But the students did receive help from a range of state and national journalists and experts. Smith is understandably proud of what her high school students have accomplished: “Everybody kept telling them, ‘stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong.’ They were at a loss that something that was so easy for them to see was waiting to be noticed by adults.”

Once their story was published and Robertson resigned, PHS journalism students started getting national attention for their work.  Along with the stories from the Post and the Star, there were tweets and retweets from a number of top national journalists including Boston Globe Spotlight team reporter Todd Wallack, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, and Washington Post political reporter David Fahrenthold.

Upate 4/6/17 – Story has hit the New York Times!

There are days when I worry about the future of journalism, and then there are days like today when I know the future of my field and passion is in good hands.

Congrats to these young journalists – they’ve got a great future ahead of them.

I’m proud of you!


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Are ‘Contact’ and ‘Prometheus’ essentially the same movie?


Contact movie posterPrometheus movie poster

I recently saw the 1997 science fiction movie Contact on streaming for the first time, nearly 20 years after its initial release.  And as I watched it, I was immediately struck by how many ways it resembled director Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus, which I have seen many times since it was released in 2012.

Both movies feature female scientists who are obsessed with making first contact with aliens who have reached out humans:

  • Ellie in ContactContact tells the story of astronomer Ellie Arroway (played by Jodi Foster) who is searching for life outside of earth using radio telescopes to listen for signals that would indicate extraterrestrial life.  She eventually detects these signals and interprets them as an invitation for humans to make contact with the civilization that sent them.
  • Elizabeth from PrometheusPrometheus tells the story of archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) who is looking for signs of extraterrestrial contact with early humans using cave drawings located around the world. She interprets these drawings as an invitation (with a map) for humans to make contact with the civilization that inspired the drawings.

Both Ellie and Elizabeth lose their mothers at an early age; this results in their both being raised by somewhat eclectic fathers whom they also lose at relatively young ages.

Faith is a central issue for the heroines of both movies.

  • Contact’s Ellie firmly believes in science and rejects the importance of faith in an unseen god as being completely unnecessary in a world guided by science.  She is encouraged to consider the possibility of God’s involvement by her one-time lover, Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey).
  • Prometheus’s Elizabeth is a scientist who wears a cross around her neck and explains to her lover/partner Charlie that she believes in God not because she has direct evidence of his existence but because she has faith. Charlie (played by Logan Marshall-Green) is an atheist who views Elizabeth’s search for meaning in her existence from God as a waste of time.

Both movies have a shadowy industrialist in ill-health who finance the heroines’ very expensive journey into space for reasons of their own.

  • S.R. Hadden from ContactContact for reasons that are never fully explained but would seem to be because he wants to make contact with another civilization.  He then goes on to finance her journey through a wormhole to meet this alien civilization. He dies before the end of the movie. On a somewhat related note, actor John Hurt plays the role of Cane, the first person to die in the original Alien movie (for which Prometheus is a prequel).
  • Trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce) finances Elizabeth’s journey to the distant moon LV-223. His motive is that he wants to meet the aliens who appear to have created humans. He is close to death throughout most of the movie, and he dies of unnatural causes before the end of the movie.

In the end, both Ellie and Elizabeth are forced by their discoveries to confront their questions of belief through faith.

Obviously, these are two very different movies with one giving a fundamentally optimistic look at our first contact with an alien species and the other giving an unrelentingly dark view of that event.

So here’s my question: What do you think? Do these movies take radically different approaches to exactly the same themes? Or am I just looking for patterns that aren’t really there?  Keep in mind that I’m the guy who thinks Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones is an extended tribute to the films of Ridley Scott

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Did McDonald’s Twitter Get Hacked or Go Rogue With Trump Dissing Tweet?

The tweet was up and gone from the official McDonald’s Twitter feed within 20 minutes this morning – but for the time it was up, it was a drawing a huge amount of attention:

Screen capture of the official McDonald’s Twitter feed from this morning. The tweet was deleted within 20 minutes of being posted. h/t Bradd Jaffy of NBC News.

Not surprisingly, McDonald’s quickly posted that they had been hacked and had taken action to prevent it from happening again:

But not everyone in the twitterverse was so sure that it wasn’t an inside job.

Lily Herman, who writes for Teen Vogue, acknowledges that the tweet was deleted, but wonders what was behind it:

Geek girl blog The Mary Sue provided links to numerous social media professionals who suspected that it was instead an unauthorized post by an insider who was willing to pay the price.

Esther Cohen is the social media editor for The Next Web.

Ced Funches is a designer for Vox Media.

And Jeff Yang is a contributor at CNN.

There was a brief flurry of the #BoycottMcDonalds hashtag, but it doesn’t seem to have really taken off.

Of course, the irony of it all is that President Trump has a history of saying kind things about McDonald’s on social media.

Celebrating 1237! #Trump2016

A post shared by President Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on



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What did Rachel Maddow do to Upset So Many People with Trump’s Tax Return?

Last night on her MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow and her guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, revealed the front two pages of President Trump’s 2005 tax return.  The reveal had been promoted on the network and via social media for about 90 minutes or so. Here are the two tweets Maddow sent out in advance:

The show started, as The Rachel Maddow Show (TRMS) almost always does, with a 20-minute-long A-block, or first segment, that I refer to as story time. During these 20 minutes, she gave a condensed history of the controversy over President Trump’s finances and his failure to release his tax returns. This included extensive information about the president’s possible relationships with a range of Russian oligarchs in connection to his massive real estate business.

Following that segment, Maddow and Johnston reviewed the two pages of Trump’s 2005 tax return that Johnston recently received in the mail.  Johnston chose to reveal the documents on Maddow’s show because he had had a good experience on her show recently discussing reporting he had done on Trump and the Russians.

The facts revealed were not earth shattering.  The two pages of the 1040 tax form showed that Trump had made $150 million and paid $38 million in federal taxes.  But there were none of the really interesting supporting forms that would show where the president earned that income.

Despite the fact that the president called the story “FAKE NEWS,” he did not dispute that the pages were his tax return from 2005.

In addition to all the missing forms, the other big question was where did the 1040 pages come from? Both Maddow and Johnston speculated that Trump or a surrogate might have been the source.  As the Washington Post points out, the fact that the forms said “Client Copy” on them, suggests that it came from Trump rather than from the government.

By the time Maddow got to the part of her show where she revealed the tax returns, the White House had already done a wide scale release of the key numbers, taking any scoop away from Maddow.

Criticism of how Maddow handled her show Tuesday night was widespread. The conservative advocacy website MRCTV posted a long list of tweets critical of Maddow under the headline

Twitter Just SHREDDED Rachel Maddow
Over Trump Tax Return ‘Story’

And the entertainment blog The Wrap had the following:

Twitter Switches to Mockery After
Maddow’s Trump Tax Reveal Lacks Bombshells

Journalism think tank The Poynter Institute was more measured in their response, noting:

As the world watches, Rachel Maddow
slow-plays Trump tax return scoop

To which I would say – Fair enough.


While the scoop was not all that it could have been it did do several things:

  • It gave us all a first look at the president’s finances. Every major party nominee since Richard Nixon has released his or her tax returns … other than President Trump.
  • It shows that Trump may have been lying about the total size of his wealth.  He had claimed that he had a net worth of as much as $10 billion.  As Trump critic Kurt Eichenwald tweeted, Trump’s income was way too low for someone with that level of assets.
  • Although Trump paid a perfectly respectable level of taxes in 2005, if the tax policy that he is advocating now were in place (which does away with the alternative minimum tax) he would have owed very little.

As for the complaints about how Maddow handled the story – Her show has always been about context. For the last couple of weeks she has been ignoring the president’s tweets and only looking at his actions. In addition, the trademark of her show is the extended first segment that sets her topic for the evening in context. She has never been about shouting out breaking news.

I typically listen to her show’s audio podcast the following day and feel like I miss very little by waiting half a day before checking in on it.

If you want the fast paced shouting that is typical on nighttime cable news, there’s plenty of places  you can go for it. As for me, I’ll taken my news with a bit of context.

(BTW, while I’m mostly defending Maddow here, that doesn’t mean I’m always in her corner.  When the whole Chris Christie “Bridgegate” scandal was breaking, I stopped listening to Maddow’s show for a couple of weeks because I just couldn’t take any more talk on the topic.)

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