Impeachment vote makes history, but right-wing circus continues

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Everyone keeps on saying how historic it is to have an impeachment vote against a sitting US president, and there’s no question it fits the technical definition, since it has only happened twice before, and Trump’s impeachment will undoubtedly go down in history. And yet, the vote in the House on Wednesday — much like everything else that has led up to this point — didn’t feel like history in the making, it felt like a circus sideshow. One in which the facts no longer matter, for one side of the debate at least; all that matters is to be seen waving the flag and supporting the “duly elected” president, dropping code words like Biden and Hillary Clinton, and muttering darkly about the “deep state” and a Ukrainian Crowdstrike server that doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a good-faith disagreement about the severity of certain actions by the president, just a wholesale denial of all the pertinent facts. The main approach seems to be to repeat untruths over and over in the hope that, if they don’t convince anyone, at least they will muddy the waters a little.

In this fictional universe — as represented in Trump’s unhinged six-page letter to Nancy Pelosi — there were no crimes or misdemeanors, just a “perfect” conversation with the Ukrainian president, no quid pro quo, etc. But wholesale denial of the facts isn’t even the worst of it. According to Playboy correspondent Brian Karem, a White House source said one theory inside the administration is that “Hillary Clinton lost the election with the aid of Russian hacking so the Democrats could then impeach Trump” (that one drew an animated reaction from Clinton). After spending most of the day tweeting about the upcoming vote, the president held a rally in Michigan, where he went through all his usual rhetorical gambits, including blaming the impeachment on Hillary (to chants of “Lock her up!”) and saying the Democrats were planning to impeach him before he even ran for the Republican nomination. Breitbart News had a story up calling the event a “raucous rally for the ages” before it had even started.

None of this is surprising to anyone who has been paying attention for the last two years, of course. As Kevin Roose of the New York Times pointed out in a September article entitled “Brace yourself for the Internet impeachment,” previous impeachments were fairly sedate affairs. But thanks to 24-hour news channels, social-media networks that prioritize clickbait, and the weaponization of right-wing anger over a host of social and political issues, we — and especially Trump — now live in a stew of disinformation — some of it targeted for political gain, some to cash in on ad revenue, and some for what the denizens of 4chan and Reddit describe as “the lulz.” And all of those forces tend to coalesce around issues like the impeachment, like moths to a flame. As my colleague Jon Allsop put it recently, “an unusually clear story about Trump seems to have become murkier by the day… not because the central facts have been undercut, but because of the present, hellish nature of our information ecosystem.”

It doesn’t help that even some Democrats who support the impeachment vote see it as a somewhat Quixotic event, given the reception it will likely get in the Senate when it comes time to have a trial. Mitch McConnell has made it clear he is planning to co-ordinate what happens there with the president to make it as favorable as possible, including potentially shutting down any questioning of witnesses. Toward the end of Wednesday, there were reports that Democratic strategists were recommending to Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she postpone sending the impeachment to the Senate, so that the House could potentially force McConnell to implement a fair process, and/or add more evidence of bad behavior to the documents, in the hope that doing so might help sway some of the Republicans in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Trump critics console themselves with treats like a video clip of him before he became president, talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN in 2008, praising Nancy Pelosi and arguing that George Bush should have been impeached. But will this convince anyone who currently supports Trump that they shouldn’t? Unlikely at best. The New York Times and Washington Post continued to cover the impeachment the way they would any normal historic news event, putting it in context and doing tick-tock reports on the process leading up to the actual votes in the House. But to what end? To provide a paper trail for archaeologists of the future? Post executive editor Marty Baron likes to say his paper is “not at war, we’re at work.” But how does that help if a significant proportion of the country — not to mention Congress — has no interest in your work, and in fact is quite prepared to believe the exact opposite?

Here’s more on the impeachment vote and reaction to it:

A farce: Trump’s impeachment is set to turn into a farce, says the Financial Times. Holding a president to account is the US constitution’s ultimate remedy for a renegade executive, the paper writes in an editorial, but it has become obvious the Senate has no interest in holding an actual trial on the facts. “The system will not even make a pretence of weighing the evidence,” says the Times. “Mr Trump has all but been acquitted of abuses for which he is self-evidently guilty. The US mechanism of checks and balances will thus be left weaker at the end of the process than at the start.”

Just like Jesus: Just when you thought Republicans’ defense of Donald Trump couldn’t get any more creative, Mother Jones writes, it did. In his House speech voting against the impeachment process, Republican Barry Loudermilk compared the president’s ordeal to that experienced by Jesus. “When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers,” Loudermilk said on the floor of the House of Representatives during today’s impeachment debate. “During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than Democrats have afforded this president in this process.” No word on any Trump miracle-working.

Kabuki theater: Author and attorney David French writes in his newsletter that the impeachment process resembles Kabuki theater, the highly stylized Japanese theater format known for its elaborate costumes. Partisanship has grown so powerful that “Nixon would probably survive Watergate today,” he says. But he argues that the Democrats needed to impeach Trump anyway. “It will put a permanent, justified stain on this president’s historical record,” French writes. “And it will make the voters ask themselves, in 11 short months, “Do we really want to do this again?”

A man alone: Justin Amash, a former Republican member of the House for Michigan, voted in favor of impeachment. He quit the party in July to declare himself an independent, in part because of his opposition to many Trump initiatives such as the border wall. Lauren Harris wrote for CJR about Amash’s journey from party man to independent, saying “Amash’s mulishness in a time of toeing party lines has put his star on the rise, but Michigan voters will have to decide whether a candidate increasingly famous for being an outsider is more or less worthy of receiving a vote.”

Other notable stories:

This week on CJR’s Galley discussion forum, we are holding a series of interviews with experts in artificial intelligence about the future of that field and how it affects us. Whether we acknowledge it or not, algorithms and machine learning play an increasingly large role in our digital — and even our physical — lives. Facebook and Google use them to determine what content and ads to show us, governments use them to decide who may have committed a crime, and companies use them to choose interview candidates, set insurance rates, and decide who gets medical coverage. We spoke with Karen Hao of MIT’s Technology Review; Charlie Beckett, director of the Polis journalism think-tank at the London School of Economics (which just came out with a report on how newsrooms are dealing with AI), Marc Lavallee of the New York Times and Daphne Keller of Stanford’s Center for the Internet and Society.

A new study from the Knight Foundation analyzed more than 86 million tweets posted in 2017 and categorized users based on their position on the ideological spectrum, in an attempt to see how how users from across the political divide engage with news issues and major media outlets on Twitter. According to the study, the center left is the largest segment present on Twitter by far, with the extreme right a distant second in size, followed by the center right and the extreme left. The report also found that the ideology scores for users in the extreme right segment are substantially further from the center than those in the extreme left.

Free Press, along with the Media, Inequality & Change Center, and Media Mobilizing Project, has launched the Philadelphia Organizing and Media Collaborative, a three-year initiative that it says “will work to replace prevailing media narratives with complex stories about trauma, safety, crime and the legal system in Philadelphia.” The new entity will be funded by a $2.6-million grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation.
“We hope to offer a forward-looking vision for how media can be reorganized and restructured to better serve people who are too often neglected or misrepresented by the news,” said Mike Rispoli of Free Press.

Priyanjana Bengani writes for CJR about a new Tow report that tracked down more than 450 local news sites that all appear to be part of a network controlled by a single entity called Metric Media, including partisan outlets that pretend to be local news organizations. “Over a two-week period starting November 26, we tapped into the RSS feeds of these 189 Metric Media sites, all of which were created this year, and found over fifteen thousand unique stories had been published (over fifty thousand when aggregated across the sites), but only about a hundred titles had the bylines of human reporters. The rest cited automated services or press releases.” 

In a piece for Ars Technica, writer Timothy Lee talks about how he created his own “deepfake” video for just $552. Lee says swapping out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s face and replacing it with that of actor Brent Spiner from Star Trek took about two weeks and cost a little over $500. “The video isn’t perfect. It doesn’t quite capture the full details of Data’s face, and if you look closely you can see some artifacts around the edges,” Lee writes. “Still, what’s remarkable is that a neophyte like me can create fairly convincing video so quickly and for so little money.”

According to a new study from the Stanford Internet Observatory, which is run by former Facebook head of security Alex Stamos, the search results returned by Microsoft’s Bing search engine contain “an alarming amount of disinformation” on a range of topics. Although it may be dwarfed in market share by Google, the study says, “it has steadily increased over the past ten years, and Bing’s partnerships with Yahoo, AOL, DuckDuckGo, and Apple mean that even users who don’t use Bing as their default search engine or go directly to its home page might get information from Bing.”

The New York Times has a year-end feature called “The Decade Tech Lost Its Way,” in which some of the key players in technology and media are quoted talking about a variety of incidents, from the role social media played in the Arab Spring in Egypt to the beginning of the Tim Cook era at Apple. “When the decade began, tech meant promise — cars that could drive themselves, social networks that could take down dictators. It connected us in ways we could barely imagine,” the intro reads. “But somewhere along the way, the flaws of technology became abundantly clear. What happened?”

Techdirt founder Mike Masnick writes for Reason magazine about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s recent proposal to create a public effort to replicate the social network as an open-source protocol like email. In his comments on Twitter about this plan, Dorsey mentioned that part of what sparked the idea was a paper Masnick wrote for the Knight First Amendment Institute promoting the idea of an open protocol. “It has the potential to, at the very least, shift the discussion on three of the biggest complaints concerning the big internet companies today: competition, privacy, and content moderation,” Masnick writes.

A network of social media accounts connected to a leak of US-UK trade documents has also spread false news stories online using the community section of BuzzFeed and other open-access websites such as the question-and-answer site Quora, a BBC investigation has discovered. The accounts, which the news service says have been linked to Russia, used the sites to publish and promote fake stories, highly partisan content and conspiracy theories. BuzzFeed and Quora removed some material after they were approached by the BBC, the news network says.

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