Good journalism is a necessity for good government. It is needed to inform the populace so that we can form educated opinions about the world around us. Unfortunately, how our major news services are discovering and reporting the news today is an affront to the term “journalism.” Beyond that, it should be an embarrassment to our country. Few Americans have the time to dissect where the news they see or read comes from. I’m going to show you how the anatomy of a modern news story looks more like a child’s game of “telephone.”
Starting the Journey from its End
Thanks to the efforts of Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein, along with the Clinton campaign, you may have heard that funds were raised to conduct recounts in the three key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. All three went for Donald Trump in the election (MI is expected to be officially certified today). I will discuss the recount in Wednesday’s post, but for now were going to look at how a modern news story is generated.
A week ago, Dan Merica of CNN jumped on the recount bandwagon in an article. It was updated 4:43 PM ET, Wed November 23, 2016 and started:
(CNN) Hillary Clinton’s campaign is being urged by a number of top computer scientists to call for a recount of vote totals in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to a source with knowledge of the request.
The computer scientists believe they have found evidence that vote totals in the three states could have been manipulated or hacked and presented their findings to top Clinton aides on a call last Thursday.
The scientists, among them J. Alex Halderman, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society, told the Clinton campaign they believe there is a questionable trend of Clinton performing worse in counties that relied on electronic voting machines compared to paper ballots and optical scanners, according to the source.
Remember the name J. Alex Halderman. You will see it later.
Social Media and Blog Circulation
On November 22nd, #audittheelection was a trending hashtag on Twitter. Stories about election fraud and tampering from foreign governments, namely Russia, were starting to make their way around social media. Many of those articles linked to a single source: New York Magazine.
Hillary Clinton is being urged by a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers to call for a recount in three swing states won by Donald Trump, New York has learned. The group, which includes voting-rights attorney John Bonifaz and J. Alex Halderman, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society, believes they’ve found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked. The group is so far not speaking on the record about their findings and is focused on lobbying the Clinton team in private.
Imitation is Flattery?
On Nov 22, 2016 at 4:01 pm, two hours before the NYMag article, Jen Graves posted the following on the online site The Stranger, linking back to the article:
Michigan, which has 16 electoral votes, is still too close to call. If this group of people, including “voting-rights attorney John Bonifaz and J. Alex Halderman, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society,” are correct in their belief that “they’ve found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked,” then New York magazine says Clinton would still need to take Michigan and overturn Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in order to win the electoral college.
Within a few hours, more copies of same story popped up:
This is how a modern news story gains steam. It makes the rounds on smaller blog sites and on social media long before major news bureaus like CNN get turned on to a story. What CNN reported as “news” was anything but. In fact, it was about as stale as an article gets.
Getting to the Bottom of It
The CNN story was dated November 23rd. The Gothamist started banging the recount drum with allegations of tampering on November 17th in this article by Rebecca Fish titled “Did Russia Hack The Election For Trump? Here’s What People Are Saying…”
.That article is based on evidence that “many people are saying”… so who are the “many people”? Well, the article cites Dale Beran who published a piece on Medium that dug into the interesting theory. If you follow the links, the “many people” is actually one person: David Greenwald.
David Greenwald the election fraud expert? No. The cyber security expert? No. The foreign relations expert? No. But he has to be some authority if a vaunted organization like CNN has indirectly used him in a modern news story, right? Well, you decide…
David Greenwald is a writer, photographer and cat owner in Portland, Oregon.
I can’t make this stuff up. Essentially, according to his Twitter profile, David is a music critic . The above text
is featured on the front page of his website and you can see for yourself here. I’m sure he’ll appreciate the visits.
His tweets that started this whole chain of events can be found here:
Losing the Message
Remember the name J. Alex Halderman that I mentioned earlier? He was one of the cited sources that all the above articles relyed on. Well, he posted a blog article saying he was essentially misquoted.
You may have read at NYMag that I’ve been in discussions with the Clinton campaign about whether it might wish to seek recounts in critical states. That article, which includes somebody else’s description of my views, incorrectly describes the reasons manually checking ballots is an essential security safeguard (and includes some incorrect numbers, to boot). Let me set the record straight about what I and other leading election security experts have actually been saying to the campaign and everyone else who’s willing to listen.
Did any reporter or journalist even bother to contact him? Or were they just content to regurgitate what was already published online and rely on a combination of “unnamed sources” and “many people” to bolster the story? Is this the new normal for a modern news story?
What Real Reporting Looks Like
So we just saw how a few tweets from a culture writer becomes a major news story with little or no real investigative effort. But what happens when journalists do their jobs? They uncover truth and inform the populace.
Take the supporters of Hillary Clinton circulating Facebook and Reddit posts claiming that the Justice Department is “tallying calls” from people who want an audit of the 2016 election. The hope was that once a certain threshold was reached that they would begin to investigate. Even celebrities got in on the action.
The problem is, the entire thing is bogus. How do we know? The Washington Post asked. In an article by Matt Zapotosky, he quotes: “The Justice Department does not tally the number of callers to determine whether federal action is warranted,” department spokesman David Jacobs said in a statement. “Investigatory decisions are based solely on the facts and evidence as they relate to the federal statutes the department enforces.”
A simple question asked and answered. So much for that. Sorry Hillary fans.
Fake News and Social Media
This x-ray is only a single example of how news makes it to your television or computer screen. It’s not indicative of how all news is generated or reported. Americans must learn to question the sources of their news, especially when it is being read on Facebook. Be smart, ask questions, and challenge what you read because there are no givens in modern news stories. If we can’t trust journalists to peel back the layers to get to the truth, then we need to do it ourselves.
A special thanks to Bill Mandra for the big assist in this post. It was him who did much of the initial research for this article. In short, he did more journalism than the reporters mentioned here.