By Glynn Wilson –
President Barack Obama faced the national press corps on Friday in his final press conference of the year and one of the last of his presidency. The American people might want to watch this for themselves to see a class act at work before the vulgar loose cannon Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office in January.
Even one of my closest friends and advisers who has been a critic of Mr. Obama on foriegn policy watched this video in its entirety and said he will miss seeing someone in office with such class and grace, along with intelligence, honesty and the ability to articulate difficult to understand government policies under fire.
I watched the video too on Friday, then read all the mainstream media coverage of it Saturday morning. As you know I am a critic of the mainstream media, but as a journalist, I feel a certain responsibility to see how they cover these stories.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile for our readers if I walk you through the coverage and point out the strengths and weakneses.
Let’s start with Reuters.
President Barack Obama on Friday strongly suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally authorized the computer hacks of Democratic Party emails that American intelligence officials say were aimed at helping Republican Donald Trump win the Nov. 8 election.
Obama said he’d leave it to political pundits to debate the question of whether the hacking swayed the election outcome. He did, however, chide the media for that he called an “obsession” with the emails that were made public during the election’s final stretch.
But with only a month left in office, during a somber press conference before leaving for a family holiday in Hawaii, Obama spoke despairingly about the “nasty” state of U.S. politics, saying the chasm between Democrats and Republicans has made it possible for Russia to cause mischief.
Obama said he has “great confidence” in intelligence reports he has seen showing that Russians hacked into emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and to John Podesta, who was campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The leaked emails revealed details of paid speeches Clinton gave to Wall Street, party infighting and comments from top aides to Clinton who were shocked about the extent of her use of a private server to send emails while secretary of state.
The leaks led to embarrassing media coverage and prompted some party officials to resign. Obama, who campaigned vigorously for Clinton, said she was treated unfairly and found the media coverage of her troubling.
“This happened at the highest levels of the Russian government,” Obama said when asked whether Putin was personally involved in the hacks. He added that “not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”
There’s more to the story, but this is the important stuff. It’s not a bad story for deadline wire coverage, except that the president told the press corps that he was not going to personally blame Putin for the hacking. He made it clear that he was going to wait to draw conclusions until the intelligence agencies finalize their report before he leaves office.
He also made it clear that he was not going to personally draw conclusions about whether or not the hacking incident itself or the news coverage of it were the critical factor in the outcome of the election. The wire service ran with that angle anyway.
If I had been there in the room working on deadline for a wire service I might have done exactly the same thing. But with a little more time to view the president’s remarks and read other coverage, this story by itself could be misread by the public and readers could conclude that the Russians cost Hillary Clinton the election.
That may not be borne out by the facts when all the information comes in. For the past few days, there have been all kinds of speculative stories out there being shared on Facebook that suggest the Russians hacked the Democratic Party, leaked emails, pushed fake news stories and propaganda and cost Hillary Clinton the election. Many real, mainstream news organizations have profited from this story line, even though it might not be quite accurate.
I’ve already covered that.
In the Washington Post story, there are a couple of paragraphs that make it clear the president thinks the mainstream media’s obsession with the hacking and email stories might have had more to do with the public’s perception of the case than the email stories merit in the larger scheme of things.
Obama faulted political reporters for what he described as their “obsession” with emails hacked from Democrats, allegedly by the Russians. And he complained that the level of attention paid to those emails seemed inappropriate when there were “so many big issues at stake, and such a contrast between the candidates came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks.”
“You guys,” he chastised the press corps, “wrote about it every day, every single leak about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe.” Podesta chaired Hillary Clinton’s recent presidential campaign.
So can we get past the fake news storyline now and move onto the facts?
One thing I found interesting about the press conference is that the Associated Press still gets to ask the first question. This is an old tradition that seems a bit antiquated now. In the old days, Helen Thomas of UPI always got to ask the last question. Those days are gone.
So how did Josh Lederman, the AP’s White House correspondent, deal with the story?
The headline is a bit unfortunate, most likely a function of left over space limitations for print clients or web system limitations. But here’s the lede.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama put Russia’s Vladimir Putin on notice Friday that the U.S. could use offensive cyber muscle to retaliate for interference in the U.S. presidential election, his strongest suggestion to date that Putin had been well aware of campaign email hacking.
“Whatever they do to us, we can potentially do to them,” Obama declared.
Sounds to me like the AP can’t wait for cyber war. The problems continue with this coverage.
Caught in the middle of a post-election controversy over Russian hacking, Obama strongly defended his administration’s response, including his refusal before the voting to ascribe motive to the meddling or to discuss now what effect it might have had. U.S. intelligence assessments say it was aimed at least in part on helping Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, and some Democrats say it may well have tipped the results in his favor.
It seems to me, knowing all the facts now, that the president and his administration did the right thing, not getting involved in a partisan way during the election cycle. But AP insists on being critical in its tone.
The story does not mention the role the FBI director had in escalating the hacking and email stories 11 days before the election, an issue we have already analyzed. Chances are the coverage of that had more of an impact on voter’s perception of the Clinton campaign than the Russian hacking or any so-called fake news stories.
Later in the story, there is this explosive nugget.
Clinton has even more directly cited Russian interference. She said Thursday night, “Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyberattacks against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me.”
The story leaves that accusation hanging there without analysis, then moves on to other issues covered in the press conference.
In the Washington Post coverage, on the other hand, there is more reporting on what the president really sees as the problem with public perception of public affairs in America today.
More than once, Obama cited research that many Republicans now view Russian President Vladimir Putin more favorably than they did before this year’s election. According to the Economist-YouGov survey, more than a third of voters who support Trump have a positive view of Putin.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave. And how did that happen?” he asked. “It happened in part because for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that’s said is seen through the lens of does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats, or relative to President Obama.”
“And unless that changes, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence, because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for,” he added.
At different points the president seemed doubtful about the functional effectiveness of the U.S. press, politicians and even citizens — whom he often has exempted from his harshest critiques in the past.
How is it that “the basic decency and goodness of the American people” has become so muted in the national political discourse, he asked, that “you have voters and unelected officials who have more confidence and faith in a foreign adversary than they have in their neighbors?”
Mr. Obama is clearly bothered by this and even puzzled by it, as smart as he is.
But knowing what I know from many years of research about media effects on public opinion, it is clear that the public confusion comes not from this new phenomenon of so-called “fake news,” passed around on Facebook. That might make things worse at the outermost margins. The overriding problem is that on a daily basis, the average, ordinary, day-to-day mainstream media coverage hedges all its bets on everything to appear to be skeptical and cover “both sides” of every issue, even when there are no two credible sides to the story.
In other words, they never, ever make reality clear to people.
That opens the door to influence from propaganda and fake news.
Look, no matter what anyone tells you, the media in this country has a tremendous amount of power to mold what people think about and even how they think about things. If everyone would simply get onboard on the big, key stories of the day, the public would follow like sheeple.
Let me throw in a new wrinkle to try to discredit the story line that the Russian hacking and fake news cost Clinton the election.
There is another story making the rounds in the British press that is not being covered by the mainstream media in the U.S.
Ex-British ambassador who is now a WikiLeaks operative claims Russia did NOT provide Clinton emails – they were handed over to him at a D.C. park by an intermediary for ‘disgusted’ Democratic whistleblowers
So let’s just say it is a given that of course Russia is spying on the U.S. government, and yes, it uses hacking. We do the same to them as President Obama made clear.
But what if in this case, the leaked emails and entire press corps were obsessing over did not make it to Wikileaks from Russian hackers or the Russian government? What if they leaked the old fashioned way, by an insider in the DNC who gave them in digital form to Wikileaks? Who would know better where the leaks came from than those who obainted and published the leaks?
This makes more sense, and it is consistent with what Wikileaks’ Jullian Assange has been saying all along. He has repeatedly said the emails did not come from Russians hackers or the Russian government.
Does this story not blow up the entire scenario that Russia and its army of spies and hackers cost Hillary Clinton the election? I say it does.
But let’s look at something even more run of the mill than that. In the weeks leading up to the election, even before FBI director James Comey’s ill-fated press conference, the national polls and the key state polls were showing the race too close to call, clearly within the margin of error, and had Trump trending up in the polls and Clinton trending down.
What if Clinton’s campaign just shaped up as a losing effort and the spying, hacking, emails, coverage of emails, fake news, etc. had nothing to do with the outcome at all?
Believe the conspiracy theories if you want to. But this seems — to me — to be the most likely scenario. Everything else is clickbait.
© 2016 – 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.