Trump and his language

The news today is full of accounts of a White House meeting yesterday on immigration. Trump, apparently after becoming agitated, made strong comments about some nations, including Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries.  Early news accounts said he referred to the nations as “shithole countries.” In a follow-up story today in The Washington Post, Trump seemed to deny the use of the profane term.  My very proper Methodist mother, were she alive, would say that she would like to wash the president’s mouth out with a bar of soap. Democrats and some Republicans are understandably outraged by the remark, if it were made. Rights groups have also condemned such comments. The pattern of Trump’s harsh language and insulting references to people, including some world leaders, unfortunately continues.

Democrats have been floating for months the idea that Trump is unstable, possibly suffering early Alzheimer’s, and in any case is unfit to be president. Their fantasy involves some scenario, impeachment or possibly the people in the White House uniting in the effort, where Trump would be removed from office. Any such scenario seems a remote possibility, at best. The Trump presidency continues to be erratic and at times irrational, despite regrouping at the end of 2017 to pass a major rewrite of the tax code. Democrats are fearful that the tax cuts will turn out to be popular with the public, which they probably will.

Nonetheless, Trump damages his presidency and his own standing by the crudeness of his language. Several months ago, his rant against NFL players who won’t stand for the National Anthem is such an example. His desire to “get that son of a bitch off the field” is just not necessary. And this was well after the release of audio recorded before his campaign in which he referenced grabbing a certain women’s body part. Now, I try not to be a prude about language. The level of profanity used by both young men and women frequently strikes me as vulgar, disrespectful and unnecessary. Trump is not only setting a bad example, but he plays into the hands of opponents who believe he has brought a mean-spiritedness to the White House. Whether mean spirited or not, Trump displays a rude and crude nature that is unbecoming of a president.

SMU steps in it, but recovers

SMU has been in the news in the last week, and not especially in a favorable light. The controversy began when the university announced a plan to move a student display honoring the victims of 9/11 away from an area near Dallas Hall. The move included other student displays, but it was the 9/11 display that drew the headlines. Dallas Hall is the most prominent and recognizable building on the campus. In the initial report on the move, The Dallas Morning News reported that a policy by the university from July had determined that students had a right to be free of “messages that are triggering, harmful or harassing.” The paper also reported that the policy had been changed, but it was still the university’s intent to move student displays to an area other than near Dallas Hall. SMU immediately issued a statement of apology, noting that the display was an “important campus event” honoring the victims of 9/11. The display has been erected each year since 2010 by the Young Americans for Freedom, a student group on the SMU campus.

Other coverage followed in the Dallas paper as well as some national press, including Fox News. Among the other coverage was a column by Morning News writer Jacquielynn Floyd taking the university to task for the politically charged language of “triggering” mechanisms that has been an issue on several notably liberal campuses. Floyd correctly described the term as “idiotic.” Other coverage reported an exchange of correspondence between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and SMU President R. Gerald Turner. Abbott encouraged the university to continue to allow the display in its place of prominence next to Dallas Hall. Even with the initial apology, it was still the university’s intent to move the various student displays away from Dallas Hall. The university’s position on moving the displays lasted for a week. Yesterday, the story finally came full circle with SMU agreeing to allow the 9/11 display in the same place where it has been. I don’t believe the initial communication to students intended to link “triggering” messages directly with the students’ 9/11 exhibit, but the damage was done.

In a letter to the SMU community dated Aug. 10, the day after the agreement, President Turner outlined the new agreement and acknowledged the mistake in communicating a policy that had not been approved. He said in the letter the error was one “we deeply regret.”

In putting this matter to rest, I’d like to make three points.

  • It could have been defensible to move all such displays away from the Dallas Hall area for the purpose of maintaining access to space that is the most visible and arguably most important on the campus. However, when the students’ 9/11 display became the focal point of the story, SMU was an automatic public relations loser. Students honoring 9/11 victims by putting 3,000 flags on prominent lawn space? Why would anyone pick that fight? It was an easy target for a conservative governor to make his points, which he did. It was also easy to gather sympathy for deserving students engaging in a sincere and honorable project.
  • The Morning News was not entirely correct in reporting that the language on “triggering” mechanisms was policy adopted in July.  In fairness to the newspaper, the message apparently was communicated as policy. It was language that was communicated to students in error, as we now know. The university, in its apology, said that the language had never been through the approval process. What seems to have happened is that the language had been on some document and ended up being transmitted to the student groups. It was error compounded by error, and embarrassingly so. That the 9/11 display could ever have even been tangentially associated as a “trigger” was absurd and insulting to students and the public. In his letter, President Turner made clear that the decision to move the displays, including the 9/11 display, was in no way connected to the language that was used. The language smacks of a politically correct dogma that has no place on a university campus. I expressed myself on this point as it related to university life in an op-ed piece published online by the Morning News almost two years ago and in other items on this blog.
  • I have written this before and will do so again. SMU has an excellent record of free speech and open intellectual inquiry, including academic freedom. Beyond the embarrassment of the current case, let’s hope it’s an instructive moment for the public as well as students and faculty. Many seem to believe that because “Methodist” is a part of the university’s name, there are inherent limits on freedom of expression. Most of our students and faculty aren’t Methodists, and one of the strengths of SMU is that we are a campus without religious requirements of any kind and open to all faiths. I am a Methodist, and the tradition of openness to experience and intellectual freedom was established by John Wesley, an Oxford graduate, in the foundation of Methodism in the late 18th Century.  That tradition has carried through in the number of excellent universities established by Methodists in the United States. Some of those universities still have Methodist affiliations, and some don’t. There is a famous story, frequently told and written by the late SMU Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry, of a major controversy in the 1950s when a socialist was invited by students to speak on campus. President Willis Tate found out about the invitation by reading The Daily Campus, the student newspaper. Howls of protest emerged from the conservative business community in Dallas, including a columnist in the Morning News who labeled Tate a “pinko.” Tate stood firm, and in the retelling by Terry said, “As long as discourse is civil on this campus, there will be free speech.” The speech occurred without incident.  Finally, Jacquiellyn Floyd noted in her column that it was the students, both conservative and liberal, who had come forward and in a statement expressed strong support for free speech and that there was no right to be “shielded” from ideas. The students put it brilliantly. And it was Kylie Madry, the editor in chief of The Daily Campus, who was out front on the story from the beginning. Her original story on Tuesday, Aug. 1, drew a link from The Washington Post.

In closing, I send out a special note of appreciation to the leaders of the various student groups who spoke up for freedom of expression.  As I’ve noted to several others, it could be we’re doing something right in the classrooms at SMU.

Welcome First Amendment decisions

Whatever one thinks of the U.S. Supreme Court, there has been a rare consensus emerging to protect free speech. Two court decisions this week highlight this important protection of the First Amendment. The first decision came in favor of an Asian rock group that attempted to trademark the name Slants. The group challenged the U.S. Patent and Trademark office because of a law against trademarks that disparage people or groups.  The leader of the group, Simon Tam, said that the group was trying to reclaim the slur against Asians as a point of pride. The group lost in the first legal rounds. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought we hate.” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by the court’s liberal wing, but all justices agreed on the basic decision that the law infringed on free speech.

The court was also unanimous in striking down a North Carolina law that prohibited sex offenders from using social media websites on which they might come into contact with potential targets. Kennedy wrote that the law was much too broad and “unprecedented” in limiting the scope of First Amendment speech. The court noted that the law prevented sex offenders from engaging in public discourse and using websites that might lead to employment. It’s obviously difficult to find sympathy with sex offenders, and several of the justices noted that much narrower laws limiting sex offenders’ access to social media might withstand constitutional scrutiny.

The first case seems to lend broad support to the ongoing controversy of the Washington Redskins. The NFL team has been pressured to change the mascot of the team because the term is widely considered offensive. Team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement that he was thrilled, and “Hail to the Redskins.”

Even some conservatives have agreed that the term Redskins is offensive, and is different in its characterization than other similar terms, “Chiefs,” as in those in Kansas City, and “Braves,” as in Atlanta. Numerous college and high school sports teams have been pressured into changing mascot names. Some of the changes perhaps have been justified; others, sadly, have simply been caving to the pressure of political correctness. I agree that the origin of the term “Redskins” leads one to the conclusion that the term is disparaging and offensive. So be it. Do we really want government bureaucrats making that determination? If the First Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the right to be offensive, and, yes, even hateful. We are seeing appalling attempts by certain groups on the left to limit free speech and to place boundaries on robust dialogue. The court’s decisions this week, especially the first regarding offensive trademarks, are a welcome affirmation that the First Amendment still stands for free speech.

The Washington Post rises

CBS This Morning had an interview with Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron this week.  It was an interview that editors dream about, very laudatory and mentioning specifically several major news stories the paper has reported first about the Trump administration. The decades-long competition with The New York Times was mentioned, and for sure editors and staff at the Times have to be cringing at the stories the Post has published first. In the old days of newspapering, we called them scoops. And when you got beat, it was not good.

Baron was asked about the new ownership at the Post, and he said that the purchase of the paper by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had brought financial capital to the paper but also intellectual capital in pushing the organization into the digital age. To me, Amazon is one of the most extraordinary companies of the digital age. And The Washington Post has been reinvigorated since Bezos purchased the paper from the Graham family more than three years ago. In the last couple of years I have recommended the Post to a number of people who have asked for a recommendation of a quality newspaper. The paper’s political coverage is solid, the international staff still very engaged, and, as a personal bonus for me, the sports section is nicely done. Certainly the editorial page of the paper leans left, but I find it more reasoned and more balanced than the sharply left and often maddeningly shrill editorial page of the Times. And George Will is a solid conservative columnist and also one of the finest stylists writing for a newspaper.

Newspapers continue to struggle in the digital age. The reasons are many and varied. I agree with many conservative critics that many news organizations seem intent on making the Trump administration a failure. Just as many news organizations insisted on doing everything possible to make the Obama administration a success beginning in 2008. Obama had marginal success as a president. I’ve predicted that Trump will actually have more success than some people, especially Democrats, believe. But the news stories that the Post has broken provide information the public needs to know. And it also creates a telling environment indicating that the Trump administration needs to make serious adjustments in its strategies and communications.  I believe the Obama administration was ill-served by the softball coverage it received, especially in the early years.  Thomas Jefferson helped create the idea of the press as a check on government. He survived some of the most vicious criticism and name-calling one could imagine. And he proved to be one of our best presidents. I believe government is best served, and presidents, too, by strong coverage that provides the information people need to know for the self-governance intended by the Founders.

Trump’s first 100 days

ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd, SMU Journalism chair Tony Pederson

News media have been filled with reports on President Trump’s first 100 days in office. It’s always been a standard news media measurement, but it’s even more important now in the digital age. If you do an Internet search on the topic, literally thousands of links will appear. I was honored last week to be on a panel to discuss the topic at the Headliners Club in Austin. The Headliners Club has for more than 60 years discussed news and major events with a membership of members of the news media and government as well as business leaders in Texas. And the Headliners Foundation of Texas annually provides excellent scholarships for students studying journalism and communications.

The second panelist was ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd. The moderator was veteran journalist and chair of the Headliners Foundation of Texas Board of Governors Mark Morrison.  We had a lively discussion in front of a packed Headliners Club. (The food and the cocktails at the Headliners Club are exactly as I remember them. Excellent.) Matthew and I were asked to grade Trump’s first 100 days. Matthew gave Trump an incomplete; I gave him a C. Perhaps it’s my tendency as a professor to want to attach a fixed grade. We both agreed that Trump’s biggest accomplishment has been the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch, 49 years old, is a solid conservative and should be an influence on the court for decades. His background and education are of a superb legal intellectual.

We discussed at length the various failures of the new Trump administration, and they are many. Clearly, not making good on the promise to repeal and replace Obamacare is a major failure.  His travel restrictions from Muslim countries and his effort to block funding to sanctuary cities are tied up in the courts. His recently announced tax reform, in which he seeks a major reduction in the corporate tax rate and an increase in the personal deduction, is being met with scorn from Democrats and some general skepticism. I predicted, however, that Trump will be successful in getting some type of a major rewrite of the tax code. Even the most skeptical Democrats would agree that a revised, comprehensible tax code would be a good thing.

In assigning a grade to Trump’s first 100 days, I noted that his supporters generally have a different take on the news. For the most part, they are not seeing a daily catalog of failures and shortcomings that are the headlines on the major evening newscasts, The New York Times and The Washington Post. My comment to the Headliners Club was this: “Most Trump supporters are saying, ‘Yes, by God, we got our man elected. He’s moved into that White House and he’s giving ’em hell at every turn. Just what we wanted.'” And I think polling bears that out. His hard-core supporters like what he’s doing. They live a different reality than the mainstream news media, particularly the Eastern media. Which is why so many in the media were surprised that he won in the first place, and why Democrats remain so embittered.

I noted in an earlier blog and op-ed that Trump’s erratic and often angry campaign has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies. I think a grade of C is appropriate. He’s been average. No more and no less. But it has been pointed out, and noted at our Headliners discussion, that presidents have had a bad first 100 days and then gone on to be considered very good. Harry Truman is such an example. And there have been others have an excellent start in the first 100 days and then go on to be considered poor presidents. Jimmy Carter is such an example.

We were also asked about Trump’s characterization of journalists as “enemies of the people.” I said it was of course nothing more than Trump’s hyperbolic approach to his Twitter feed and much of his commentary in general. Nonetheless, I said that words can be hurtful. There is certainly enough criticism of modern news media, and much of it is deserved. But if we forget the traditional and necessary role of the news media in democracy and in modern society, we will err grievously. I said that we have been on a path of the last 20 years in which news media essentially have been marginalized by government. I noted the unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Eric Holder Justice Department in one of the numerous and relentless leak investigations during the Obama administration. I noted the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that did serious damage to access to public information. And I said that the Federal Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966 and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, had been a global model for government transparency but now is crippled by bureaucracy, inefficiency and a government tendency to want to operate in secret. I said at the Headliners meeting that my friend and colleague Mike Wilson, editor of The Dallas Morning News, had written a nicely nuanced column in response to the Trump tweet on journalists. Being a journalist and editor has never been easy, and today’s hostile environment, not to mention the economic situation for most news media, has made journalism and news especially difficult. Before leaving this topic, I noted that Hillary Clinton despises and distrusts the news media every bit as much as does Donald Trump. She just doesn’t tweet about it.

Of the major news reports on Trump’s first 100 days, one of the best to me has been done by John Dickerson of CBS News.  The highlights are in several segments of video on the CBS website.  There is also a full transcript of the interview available.

I predict Trump will be more successful than many Democrats can stand and less successful than many Republicans want. At the Headliners discussion, both Matthew and I agreed that international issues could create a crisis in which Trump could enjoy popular support. The rally-round-the-flag sentiment is historically very powerful. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is kooky and very likely mentally unstable. He is a wild card in a world of unpredictable and dangerous currents and events. But also unpredictable will be whether Trump’s tax plan and domestic policies can fuel real economic growth. The general economic malaise has been a part of the angst that fueled Trump’s candidacy and his election. The U.S. has also had a bull market that just turned eight years old and economic growth that has been steady if unspectacular. A recession is coming. Who can say when? But one will indeed come. And if Trump should be unlucky enough to be president when it comes, he will be blamed. And any good that he does will fall into the black hole of the harsh judgment of presidential history.

Trump and the media

Note: An edited version of this post ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on Feb. 12, 2017 under the headline “When Facts Become Optional.” The piece is online on the SMU website under “Fake News and Alternate Facts.”

Fake news and alternate facts have become the discussion du jour of the nascent Donald Trump presidency.  One might suppose, even hope, that if Hillary Clinton had won the election the world of Democrats and Progressives would have remained in its tidy orbit and we could have been spared this journalistic and political crisis. Instead, the erratic and even angry campaign of Trump has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies.

There were several key moments of concocted news during the campaign, perhaps the most recognized being the bulletin of Pope Francis endorsing Trump. Didn’t happen. We also had from The New York Times the headline “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The piece detailed a tweet sent the day after the election from a marketing company co-founder in Austin with about 40 Twitter followers. The tweet concerned busloads of anti-Trump protesters who were being paid to protest the election. The tweet was shared, according to the Times, 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. Then President-elect Trump took to his own Twitter account to denounce the protests as “incited by the media” and “very unfair.” Discussion groups and blogs picked up the details, all shared thousands of more times on social media. Of course, there were never actually busloads of paid protesters. The original tweet was finally taken down, but to little notice.

In a cold and perhaps even elitist analysis, I might say that people depending on Facebook and Twitter for news deserve what they get. That we even consider Facebook a source of news says  more about the damaged and deeply flawed psyche of American democracy than it does about social media.

But in a larger context of the free flow of information essential to self-governance, legitimate questions must be asked. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigned on major changes in the First Amendment and our concept of a free press. Clinton bought into the loopy concept of rewriting the First Amendment in order to change the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United in 2010. Trump pledged to change libel laws to make it easier for public officials to sue news organizations. That would presumably change the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 decision on press freedom in Times v. Sullivan.

We could also digress to another discussion of serious damage already done to the First Amendment by the two previous administrations. While we all understand a legitimate need for national security, the USA Patriot Act passed in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has created a disruption in the flow of information from government agencies as well as an extraordinary level of government secrecy. And there was the seizure of phone records of the Associated Press by the Eric Holder Justice Department, as well as the record-setting prosecution of leaks by the Obama administration.

This is a bit of a digression, but none of it bodes well for real news in a politically polarized environment where every news angle, legitimate or not, is taken as an affront by someone. The fact is that government in the last 16 years has shown a hostile and heavy-handed approach to the news media, and it looks like that won’t be changing anytime soon.

How does this relate to fake news? It seems like fake news is just a continuation of the pattern where traditional news media are being undermined. With the economic calamity that has hit the news media, especially newspapers but also including broadcast, there are far fewer reporters and editors to do the basic fact checking and editing of solid news. And in too many cases, the reporters and editors who have been retained are younger, less experienced, and can be paid lower salaries.

It would seem that fake news might be the emergent replacement. But the fact is that we have had fake news as long as we’ve had news media. Newspapers of the 19th Century often printed hoaxes, simply for entertainment purposes. One of the most famous was the so-called Moon Hoax, printed in 1835 by The Sun in New York. The stories detailed a British scientist who had made significant advances in telescope technology and had found that there were men on the moon. The men had wings. The paper even concocted drawings showing the creatures.

Two major contributors to American letters, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, were among the famous writers who wrote hoaxes. Sometimes the hoaxes would continue for months and spread to other newspapers in a 19th-Century version of viral media. Perhaps the most famous hoax in our history was the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 by Orson Welles. That hoax concerned a Martian invasion in New Jersey.

One can argue, and certainly it’s a legitimate concern, that the digital age with social media has opened up many more opportunities for fake news and serious harm from posts that go viral in minutes. That is quite different than printing hoaxes in a newspaper sold on the streets.

And Trump’s critics legitimately point to his relentless Twitter posts and his administration’s claim to “alternate facts.” There is real danger here with both the new president and with his White House press spokesman Sean Spicer. It’s one thing to spin stories, and all recent White House press spokespersons have done so. It’s another to state matters from the White House press podium that are demonstrably false. We are entering uncharted waters both in politics and technology.

But there’s no replacement for discerning and concerned citizens reading carefully to educate themselves in basic media literacy. One of the foundations of the Enlightenment was that human beings were rational creatures and could discern fact from falsehood. It doesn’t take a scholar to understand that Facebook and most other social media are only what they are: sometimes interesting and entertaining tools for keeping people in contact. That is, after all, the definition of social media.

It also reminds us of the legendary writer and critic A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker who said that freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one. Now anyone with a smart phone is a publisher in a global context never before imagined. Caveat lector.

The Citizens United hysteria

Note: This item was first published on Nov. 14, 2015 on an earlier version of my blog.

I’ve been somewhat amazed at the hysteria over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, decided in January 2010.  Perhaps it became such a contretemps because it involved a conservative group that wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton.  But it doesn’t take much to stir completely irrational passions on the left or right these days.  The case seems a rather straightforward decision affirming the right to promote whatever political viewpoint you choose, whether you are the sole proprietor of a company, a business of 250 employees or a multinational corporation.  The key question is whether government can restrict corporations or unions from “electioneering communication” or communication that expressly encourages specific political conduct or the election of a particular candidate.  There is much discussion in the decision as well as earlier in the oral arguments as to any distinction in the First Amendment between individuals or corporations.  I’m curious as to why Democrats complain because they seem to be raising more money for political candidates than Republicans these days in just about all races.  A story in today’s New York Times reports on a new book by retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in which he criticizes the decision.   The story details the fact that the case was argued twice, and Stevens’ claim that the majority basically designed a new case beyond the facts in order to overturn established law.  This was a claim made by President Obama in his State of the Union address in 2010 with the court’s justices seated in front of him.  Regardless of one’s politics, the overt and seemingly personal criticism of the Supreme Court justices seemed classless. But the story published in the Times points to some real lunacy that some on the left seem to embrace.  It seems that the left has pretty much given up on arguing the law and now seems to be recommending that the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, needs to be changed.  To wit, Stevens’ solution to the issue is the adoption of new constitutional amendments, one of which is acknowledged to overturn the First Amendment.   Now, one of the things that truly bothers me about modern politics is the certitude that those on the left and right seem to hold.  Perhaps it’s the teaching of ethics that has given me some fondness for the areas of gray that seem to be vanishing from points of view.  To me, those areas of gray lend themselves to real debate in which people of varying political viewpoints can, in good faith and with honest intellectual disagreement, work on compromise.   But I will say with certitude that overturning, or even modifying, the First Amendment is about the looniest thing I’ve heard in a while.  And the idea of any legislative body being able to limit the publishing of books that encourage certain political conduct, also noted in the Times article as a comment made by a government lawyer during the arguments in the case, strikes me as so totalitarian in nature as to not merit comment, much less consideration.  If you read the transcripts of the Supreme Court hearings in the case, the government makes a frightening claim that, yes, under the law, Congress could ban the publication of a book encouraging certain political conduct.  The first hearing took place on March 24, 2009.  The government’s case was argued by Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart.  The transcript of the hearing can be read on the Supreme Court’s website here.  The exchange involving Stewart and several justices, including Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, begins on page 26 of the transcript.  It is chilling and even Orwellian to read the argument by a government lawyer that the government has the right to ban publication of a political book.  The case was reheard on September 9, 2009.  The transcript of that hearing can be read here.  Solicitor General Elena Kagan, later to become a Supreme Court justice, argued the case herself.  She was asked about the government’s earlier assertion of being able to ban a book.  Her reply:  “The government’s answer has changed.”  The pertinent reading begins on page 25 of the transcript.  Even so, Kagan is unable to provide satisfactory answers to what would be the limits of government power to censor political speech.  It seems to me that even those who argue that money has corrupted political speech in the United States, and I will acknowledge that it’s an argument with some merit, would have to agree that the government lawyers didn’t present a particularly compelling or even logical case.  In 1735, in the trial of John Peter Zenger, we established the right of political speech.  Is it easier for those with wealth to communicate political speech?  Yes.  But censoring political speech in any form, however well intended for the so-called “good” of democracy or anyone’s sense of “fairness,” is the quintessential slippery slope.  Political speech in any form cannot be suppressed in a robust democracy.  The minute it begins to happen, individual as well as corporate liberty is diminished.