Four Sideshow Bobs

“Washington Post fact-checker introduces ‘Bottomless Pinocchio’ rating to call Trump on repeated false claims”

Or, the weird desperate petulance of a man in denial about the limits of his profession.

“Fact-checking” refers or should refer to behind-the-scenes editor research, ensuring quotes are real, data points are accurate, to keep the journalist honest. To use “fact-checking” to describe analyzing the veracity of politicians’ public claims just admits that journalism no longer serves that (ostensible) purpose.

When journalism becomes — or becomes more transparently — PR, mis- and disinformation, and opinion heavy, its ostensible truth-seeking project has to be recreated elsewhere:

The purpose of this website, and an accompanying column in the Sunday print edition of The Washington Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. It’s a big world out there, and so we rely on readers to ask questions and point out statements that need to be checked.

From the Bottomless Pinocchios unveiling, Glenn Kessler’s bottomless credulity:

“nevertheless”
“Despite the facts”
“a unique challenge to fact-checkers.”
“despite having access to official budget data”
objective reality does not appear to matter” (emphasis mine)
“Trump has been undeterred by pesky fact checks”

Kessler approaches understanding more than meets the eye, acknowledging that Trump doesn’t care about fact checks and lies intentionally:

Trump’s willingness to constantly repeat false claims has posed a unique challenge to fact-checkers. Most politicians quickly drop a Four-Pinocchio claim, either out of a duty to be accurate or concern that spreading false information could be politically damaging.

Not Trump. The president keeps going long after the facts are clear, in what appears to be a deliberate effort to replace the truth with his own, far more favorable, version of it. He is not merely making gaffes or misstating things, he is purposely injecting false information into the national conversation.

But he doubles down on his method, maybe infinite Pinocchios will show Trump’s not a real boy.

We could award Kessler Four Sideshow Bobs:

Except at this point Kessler himself knows this is the game:

  • Trump says what his supporters want to hear
  • Media class says ‘that’s not true!’ (i.e., what their base wants to hear)
  • Trump says the media is the enemy
  • Journalists desperately create new ways to say ‘that’s not true’
  • Both build their brand
  • Profit
  • From November 2018:

‘We’ve seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away,’ [the CNN executive] added. ‘So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.’

CNN is projected to report its most profitable year ever.”

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Four Sideshow Bobs

Self-tracking tools and data discipline

“Digital self-tracking tools are the latest wave of disciplinary technologies, imprisoning their users in a cage of data.” A pregnant-woman-to-be wonders how incessantly digitally tracking her pregnancy will amass data to be used against her future child.

Is the Apple Watch truly a guardian, caring for our well-being — or is it a warden, watching and waiting for us to make a misstep?

“Self-tracking” seems a misnomer marketing coup: the data is more useful for the tracker than the user, & shapes more than it tracks. 

Reminds me of this 2012 story: ‘How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.’

NYT: Target statistician: “We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years.”

It also calls to mind the way fantasy sports and the proliferation of countless new sports stats first ‘track’ intricacies of the game but then start to shape it. The stat of the individual starts to mean more than the game or the team.

I think it’s no coincidence that steroids became rampant in baseball in the time of ESPN, the astronomic rise of fantasy sports, and a massive increase in stat categories.

Kenny Gersh, EVP of Business at the MLB’s media branch said, “Expanding our exclusive partnership with DraftKings will bring new and exciting ways for fans, particularly younger fans, to play daily fantasy baseball.” Leagues recognize they can leverage consumers’ cravings for fantasy content into higher ratings, more viewership and engage fans during non prime-time games. For a sport that is having trouble attracting a younger audience, it seems like a natural move for MLB to make.

Basketball players have intentionally shot & missed at their own basket just to get another rebound, for the overhyped triple-double.

Fantasy sports have commodified the fleeting feeling a kid gets in their favorite player’s jersey, pretending to be in the big game.

In Europe we talk about the art of football, the poetry of football. There’s been a resistance to breaking it down and analyzing it in the past

But instead of players it turned fans into managers, overseeing a team, looking into recruits, describing players by their “production” & “value.”

Self-tracking tools and data discipline

On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness

Those of us who covered Chelsea Manning’s court martial at Ft. Meade relied on the drawings of artists in attendance to illustrate our coverage of witnesses testifying, dramatic proceedings, and vital courtroom moments. Debra van Poolen, one such artist, wrote about her experience here. I’ve thanked Debra in a piece explaining the value of her and others’ images, first published here at WARP Place. Relatedly, see artist Clark Stoeckley’s book-length graphic account of the trial here.


We are, increasingly, a visual people, overloaded with imagery at every turn. Thus the army’s (and administration’s) strategy to turn what should have been a trial available to the public for witness, conversation, and debate into a covert one made sense. No cameras, no cell phones, no computers in the courtroom. Metal detectors scanned our every inch for a hidden lens or wire. Uniformed muscles with weapons lined the walls, escorting us out to stretch our limbs and rest our eyes, watching, retrieving us. In the media room, a relaxed appearance betrayed an even more sinister crackdown on any attempt to publicize the show trial of U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning.

By and large, the mainstream media ignored the trial. We few reporters followed proceedings on a delayed video feed, that—just next door to the NSA, capable of spying on Americans’ every communication—was conveniently, annoyingly liable to cut out at any minute, for several at a time. So adverse was the Army to the public witnessing the immense, inexorable courage of a 5’2” soldier who stood head and shoulders above her fear-stricken fellow servicemen that when a few seconds of video did seep onto the world wide web, Ft. Meade soldiers with handguns were assigned to patrol the media room, their hot breath on our necks as we tried to transcribe extensive motions in real time. Continue reading “On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness”

On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness

On Media Access to Bradley Manning’s Hearing

Last week, I applied for press credentials to cover Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland. I’m an intern for the Bradley Manning Support Network, but because I intended to write about it for this site and potentially elsewhere, I applied as an “independent journalist” not affiliated with any particular organization, a news team of one.

On Wednesday, December 14, at 3:35 PM, Fort Meade’s Media Desk sent me this email, entitled “Credential Email – U.S. vs. Pfc. Bradley E. Manning (UNCLASSIFIED).” In the first section, the second sentence reads, “You are now officially credentialed to cover this hearing.”

Then, 13 minutes later, the same Fort Meade Media Desk sent me this email, rescinding the aforementioned credentials with no explanation except that they were sent out “in error.”

It’s very possible that the email was sent out by mistake. When I sent another email asking for comment on the revoking of the initial response, they sent this reply:

Perhaps the key phrase there is “provided valid press affiliation”: I applied independently, and so maybe the military doesn’t grant media access to unaffiliated journalists. It’s also worth remarking on the “limited seating” claim. It’s true that the first day of the hearing, journalists and the public packed the courtroom and there were certainly reporters left out. But in the latter half of the hearing, attendance was sparse. I was granted access to the courtroom then without much trouble, yet sill was not allowed in the “media operations center,” where reporters had a list of the witnesses and could compare quickly scribbled notes to corroborate.

As EFF writer Rainey Reitman writes in The Nation, the military spokesperson at Ft. Meade was not willing to shed much light on the matter:

Media access denied or rescinded

When Nathan Fuller applied for a press pass to attend the hearing and take notes from the media center, his request was granted—and then rescinded. Among other things, Fuller is an intern with the Bradley Manning Support Network, a coalition of individuals and organizations working to cover the financial costs of Manning’s defense and educate the public about the issues involved. On Monday, I asked the Public Affairs Official at the hearing what criteria was used to assess whether someone qualified as a journalist for the purposes of receiving a press pass, and he said he did not know. I asked how many other individuals had been denied press passes to the hearing, and he again replied that he didn’t know. I asked how many other individuals had received press passes only to have them rescinded and got the same non-response. He didn’t know if there was a phone number to someone who would have the answers to these questions. I asked my questions again on Tuesday, and the Public Affairs Officer still knew nothing—except that he wouldn’t have an answer for my questions that day.

(I delayed publishing the first email because Reitman told me after her conversation with the PAO that she expected he’d look into it and possibly award me new credentials for the remaining days.)

So the claim that the credentials were awarded in error remains plausible. But in the context of a wider crackdown on media covering the case, and without further explanation, it remains suspicious.

The credential retraction fits into a longer narrative of the United States military, Manning’s prosecutors, abusing their power to minimize media coverage of the hearing. I strongly encourage reading the rest of Reitman’s piece, entitled, “Government Blocks Access to Manning Hearing,” for more on these efforts. She writes further on the military closing portions of the hearing containing classified information:

On the third day of the trial, the investigating officer decided to accommodate the prosecution’s request for a closed hearing for a portion of the next day. The investigating officer found that the information had been properly classified and that the need to maintain that classification outweighed the value of a public and open trial. But the public, who has had access to the WikiLeaks releases for well over a year, was not given an opportunity to object. The only one who did object was the defense team of Bradley Manning, to no avail.

The Bradley Manning Support Network issued a response, condemning the closed hearings, in which they note: “even members of the public who hold relevant security clearances are expected to be removed from viewing the proceedings.”

I’ll add just one other element that she didn’t include in the article: When Manning was initially detained in Kuwait, the military told his lawyer, David Coombs, to prepare for an immediate hearing. Coombs objected – he hadn’t even met his client yet – and requested a delay to gather his defense. So the military used that request to delay the trial as long as they wanted. They pushed the hearing back a staggering 18 months, providing ample time to solitarily confine Manning to wear him down, allow media coverage of the WikiLeaks saga to die down, and finally to schedule the hearing just before the holidays (and on a weekend), so that as few journalists and Manning supporters as possible would be able to attend. (Manning’s lawyer motioned to dismiss for lack of a speedy trial.)  It should be abundantly clear to those formerly suspicious that the military has been working overtime to keep this hearing as secret as is legally allowed – and then some.

On Media Access to Bradley Manning’s Hearing