Donald Trump speaks at a press conference. Photo by Reuters

Searching for truth in an age of lies

Let’s give it up for truth. C’mon, a nice hand. It gave us a lot of good years.

Back in the day, Truth began with a capital T, and it came straight from God. Then science had a long run with it. The Enlightenment. Good times. But modernity was no piece of cake for truth. All that everything-is-relative business was shattering. As for post-modernity, let’s just say that everything-is-politics hasn’t been pretty, either. In a few thousand years, we’ve gone from Truth, to truth, to your truth and my truth, and now to the so-called truth, when everything is entertainment and the capital T goes on Twitter. No wonder truth is taking the buyout.  Let’s wish it all the best.

Last week, old school truth had its last hurrah — three hurrahs, actually: one in the East Room, one at Fox and one on Facebook. Each was prompted by an existential threat to truth, and all were ultimately about attention.

At the White House, the event was President Donald Trump’s 77-minute news conference. It was irresistible theater with the press providing the conflict, the technology feeding the spectacle to our screens and the infotainment industry monetizing our eyeballs.

At 20th Century Fox, the event was the viral marketing campaign for “A Cure for Wellness,” a movie about a fake cure that the studio promoted by faking a fake news controversy, which became a real controversy when real news hammered the campaign as an assault on journalism.

On Facebook, the event was the release of “Building Global Community,” a 5,800-word open letter from Mark Zuckerberg about the responsibility of one of the planet’s largest publishers for distributing and profiting from sensational, delicious, dangerously polarizing and totally fabricated stories.

At his news conference, Trump stated yet again that his 304-vote Electoral College tally was the biggest since Ronald Reagan. The reporters, many of whom had had it up to here with Trump’s factual negligence, were determined to answer his attack on the media by challenging his credibility. That’s what NBC’s Peter Alexander did when he respectfully ripped the president a new one. He reeled off the 365 electoral votes that Barack Obama got in 2008, and the 332 in 2012, and he mentioned the 426 that George H.W. Bush got in 1988.

“Why should Americans trust you when you have accused the information they receive of being fake,” Alexander asked, “when you’re providing information that’s fake?”

I would have loved it if Alexander had triggered a “Perry Mason” turn from Trump: “I admit it! I killed the truth! It had it coming!” If Alexander wasn’t expecting that, perhaps he anticipated that the notoriously thin-skinned president would lash out, which he did — but not until the next day, when he tweeted that the “FAKE NEWS media” — he identified them as The New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS and CNN — “is the enemy of the American People!”

What Alexander got from Trump in the East Room was this: “Well, I don’t know. I was given that information. I was given — actually, I’ve seen that information around.”

Throwing his staff under the bus, Trump brushed off his credibility problem by taking his own accountability off the table. You can’t call him a liar for trusting those “best people” he’s surrounded himself with. Worse, with five words, Trump put the journalistic norms of verification and attribution in play. “I’ve seen that information around” amounts to, “It must be true — I saw it on the internet.” It also means, “Believe me.” Forget the assessment of evidence; forget weighing the independence and the track record of sources. For Trump, extreme vetting of information consists of watching Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, reading Breitbart and Infowars and basking in the buzz in the Mar-a-Lago dining room.

In that world, the old sorting categories are toast. Instead of true and false, there’s true and alt-true; there’s facts and (in Kellyanne Conway’s creepy coinage) alternate facts. Fox News is good news; bad news is fake news. Trump knows the currency of news isn’t accuracy — it’s attention. The more he tweets, the more the echo chamber uncritically amplifies him, and the more unearned gravitas his falsehoods acquire. Virality is the new veracity.

Which takes us to the Fox lot. The studio that marketed “A Cure for Wellness” by manufacturing fake fake news — you read that right — is part of the same corporation responsible for Fox News’ “fair and balanced” fakery. (If this kinship is a coincidence, randomness has a droll sense of humor.) The movie’s social media strategy was to disguise ads for the film as editorial content and post them on fabricated websites with names like the New York Morning Post and the Houston Leader.

This scam was inspired by other scammers like the Macedonian teenagers who created and to propagate fake stories like “Clinton Indicted” as aggregation bait for alt-right sites, as link bait for the Facebook pages of Hillary haters and as a cash cow courtesy of Google’s AdSense. Talk about meta: The movie’s fake news sites carried fake stories like “Trump Orders CDC to Remove all Vaccination Related Information from Website,” which included real Trump tweets drawing a fake connection between vaccinations and autism.

The New York Times — “enemy of the American People” — ran two big negative stories within two days about the Fox campaign, which was yanked. But the idea that Facebook is a breeding ground for untruths was a motive for Zuckerberg, leapfrogging over Twitter’s dithering on the issue, to address a problem increasingly faced by its users: With universal access to unlimited content, how can you tell what’s true?

Most of us inhabit filter bubbles. Generally, we consume news whose framing and viewpoints we believe to be fair. At the same time, we’re suckers for sensationalism; stories arousing emotions like fear and disgust are great at grabbing our attention. But democracy is strongest and community is most robust when we’re exposed to quality information from a variety of different perspectives. To protect its users, should Facebook more aggressively screen out fake news? If “Pope Endorses Trump” gets banned, why shouldn’t “Trump’s Margin Biggest Since Reagan”?  Even when a story is accurate, showing someone an article whose perspective is opposite their own only makes them dig their heels in deeper. Should Facebook push back against polarization?

Zuckerberg answers these questions not by calling for new codes of conduct, but by promising new software code. In a world of inconceivable diversity, algorithms are more practical than ethics. Let the platform’s news feed show you a range of perspectives, not just the poles, so you can see where you fit on the spectrum. When stories spread, couple them with what fact-checking sites say about them, so text carries a context along with content. Let the analytics discover which stories are most shared without being read, most driven by attention-hijacking headlines; see if the data point to publishers who are gaming the system; and nail them.

None of this affects Facebook’s raid on the struggling news business’ bottom line. But what appeals to me about this approach is its reliance on intelligence more than on morality. Ever since Truth became truths, people have been searching for common values that don’t depend on divine authority. “The best life is not the moral life, but the life based on the use of reason” — that’s Israel Drazin’s gloss on Moses Maimonides.

Give truth a gold watch for its long service to civilization, but don’t leave the adjudicator position vacant. Education, media literacy, critical thinking, breadth of sources, caliber of intelligence, quality of craft — there’s no shortcut to information you can rely on.

Thinking is hard. Truth is complicated. Focus is fragile. No question: Tweets are superb at stealing our attention, but it’s no accident that birdbrain is not a compliment.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at

Here’s how to make sure anti-Semitic white supremacist Steve Bannon never serves in the White House

The 2016 Presidential Election has not happened yet and there's still time to prevent Steve Bannon from ever setting up office in The West Wing.

The election happens on December 19 in the 50 State Capitols across America when “The Electoral College” votes.

And 36 of the “Electors” can bring Donald Trump to his knees and absolutely force him to rescind the appointment of Steven Bannon as his Chief White House Strategist.

Here's how:

1. On November 8 America elected 306 Electors for Donald Trump, 36 more than the 270 needed to become President.

2. On December 5 one of those 306, a Texas Republican named Christopher Suprun, declared in a NY Times Op Ed that he was not going to vote for Trump and would, instead, vote for John Kasich or another Republican that he felt was qualified for the job. Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers gave Electors this right to reflect and consider facts that may have occurred since the election and to vote their conscience as his Op Ed notes.  (Pulitzer Prize winner, Republican Washington Post Columnist, Kathleen Parker, supports this reasoning. And here is my take on Fox Television.)

3. If 36 additional Republican Electors follow Mr. Suprun and vote for Mr. Kasich or anyone else, or abstain, Mr. Trump will not be elected and the decision will then move to The United States House of Representatives (unless Kasich or Hillary or anyone else does get 270 or more votes).

So, all 36 out of 305 remaining Republican Electors need to do is to send a little memo to Donald Trump saying essentially the following. If they do, Donald Trump will have to choose between Steve Bannon or The White House!

“Dear Mr. Trump,

As Republicans and Americans who care about equal rights for all Americans and specifically and personally abhor anti-Semitism, hate speech and White Supremacism, we are not comfortable with the appointment of Mr. Steve Bannon as your Chief Strategist. 

As such, with all due respect, we write to inform you that, should your selection of Mr. Bannon still stand when we cast our sacred votes as Electors in The Electoral College on December 19 in our state capitols, we will be unable to vote for you for President of The United States. 

Such a vote would violate our personal values.  

And for those of us who are Jewish, it would be too painful to have to tell our own children that we were actually given a chance to avoid electing an Administration that harbored such people and views and that we ignored that opportunity, one that our ancestors in Nazi Germany never had.

We are proud to be Republican Electors and were happy that our slate was chosen because of your victory in our states.  Please make us proud to vote for you on December 19.”

The 2016 Election has not happened and a small number of Republican Patriots can, and should, save America and the world from the vile influence of Steven Bannon.

Richard Greene is a Former Fellow, Constitutional Rights Foundation, Former Attorney, Political Strategist, Author.

A Trump miracle: Surprise America

Dear Mr. President-elect,

About 25 years ago, while filming a commercial with you for one of your casinos, you trusted me when I asked you to stick around for a few more takes. From what I hear, you really liked the finished product. Well, I’m asking you again to trust me and hear my thoughts.

Your presidency can go in two different directions — a disaster or a miracle. At my Shabbat table last Friday night, I had guests who voted for you and guests who voted for Hillary. To avoid a conversational food fight that would ruin the evening, I talked about miracles. I spoke about biblical miracles and personal ones. I wanted the guests to transcend, for a few hours at least, any divisive emotions. The theme of miracles, I reasoned, can apply to both sides: If you voted for Trump, you were grateful for a miracle, and if you didn’t, you prayed for one.

What would a miracle look like for your presidency?

First, you need a rallying cry. It’s wrong to assume that you should use the same rallying cry for governing that you used for campaigning. You’re in a different place now. “Make America Great Again” was ideal for dreaming and seduction. It brought you to the mountaintop. Now that you will run the country, you need something more specific, something that can guide your presidency.

How do you make America great? By making it work. So, here’s my suggestion for your governing slogan: “Let’s make America work.”

“Let’s” comes right out of your acceptance speech, when you said “it’s about us.”

“Surprise people who think you will be a divisive president who tolerates hatred. … Show that you will have zero tolerance for intolerance, whether it comes from the left or the right.”

Your speech, in fact, was all about bringing us together: “It’s time for America to bind the wounds of division … to all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. … I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.”

There’s no way you’ll be able to please everyone. No president can. But there’s one thing you can do that will improve your odds of becoming a popular and successful president: Surprise people.

Surprise people who think you will be a divisive president who tolerates hatred. When you see any of your supporters showing signs of racism, bigotry or anti-Semitism, take them on right away. Show that you will have zero tolerance for intolerance, whether it comes from the left or the right.

When you craft your policies, have empathy and use your common sense. Don’t throw out what works about Obamacare, or what works about trade deals, immigration reform, tax reform, education reform or foreign policy. In other words, don’t throw out anything that you think makes sense. Be fiscally responsible because it’s smart. Forget about abstract ideology or some of your outlandish campaign promises. You’re in power now. Do what most Americans will like or understand. Do what will work.

Speaking of what works, I have an idea for your first major initiative, one that will appeal to the great majority of Americans by putting millions of them back to work. It’s right there in your acceptance speech: “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

That is a unifying and bipartisan program that Congress can get behind, and it’s the perfect embodiment of your new slogan: Let’s make America work.

Finally, become the “Disability President.” There are 56 million Americans who have a disability. Of those, about 22 million are of working age (18 to 64) who would love to work. Tragically, most of them are out of work and withering away. Make their plight your priority. Hire cabinet secretaries and others in your administration who have disabilities. Initiate new legislation to strengthen their rights and expand their opportunities. Have monthly events at the White House that promote their cause. 

In short, show that you want an America that works for all of America.

And one more thing: Don’t forget to light the Shabbat candles on Friday night. They help miracles happen. Believe me.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Ben Shapiro resigns from Breitbart over Trump campaign manager incident

Conservative journalist Ben Shapiro is resigning from Breitbart over the news site’s handling of an alleged assault by Donald Trump’s campaign manager on a Breitbart reporter.

[SHAPIRO: Why the Republican Party is dying]

Shapiro and Michelle Fields, who claims a Trump staffer forcefully pushed her away from the Republican presidential candidate at a news conference in Florida, both resigned Sunday night, according to Buzzfeed News.

Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew and syndicated columnist, was an editor at large for the right-wing site founded by the late Andrew Breitbart.

“Andrew [Breitbart’s] life mission has been betrayed,” Shapiro wrote in a statement he submitted to Buzzfeed. “Indeed, Breitbart News, under the chairmanship of Steve Bannon, has put a stake through the heart of Andrew’s legacy. In my opinion, Steve Bannon is a bully, and has sold out Andrew’s mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump; he has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda, to the extent that he abandoned and undercut his own reporter, Breitbart News’ Michelle Fields, in order to protect Trump’s bully campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who allegedly assaulted Michelle.”

Breitbart News’ editor at large, Joel Pollak, published a satirical article on the site Monday morning mocking Shapiro for resigning and suggesting he was looking for a post at Fox News.

“Former Breitbart News editor-at-large Ben Shapiro announced Sunday evening via left-wing Buzzfeed that he is abandoning Andrew Breitbart’s lifelong best friend, widow, hand-picked management team and friends in pursuit of an elusive contributorship at the Fox News Channel,” the post read.

It was posted under the name William Bigelow — the name Shapiro’s father, David, used while writing for the site, Politico reported.

The article has since been deleted but can be read in full here. According to Politico, David Shapiro also resigned from Breitbart on Sunday night.

The Trump campaign has denied Fields’ allegations. She and Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, who was standing next to Fields at the time, both wrote accounts of the incident.

“Both Lewandowski and Trump maligned Michelle in the most repulsive fashion,” Shapiro wrote in his statement. “Meanwhile, Breitbart News not only stood by and did nothing outside of tepidly asking for an apology, they then attempted to abandon Michelle by silencing staff from tweeting or talking about the issue. Finally, in the ultimate indignity, they undermined Michelle completely by running a poorly-evidenced conspiracy theory as their lead story in which Michelle and Terris had somehow misidentified Lewandowski.”

Buzzfeed reported that several other Breitbart employees are looking to leave in the wake of the Fields incident. The company’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella, resigned on Friday.

Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart dies unexpectedly at 43 of natural causes

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