Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

Fact-based journalism is worth fighting for.

Donate
Sep 28, 2019

Commander-in-tweet

Co-produced with PRX Logo

When President Donald Trump tweets, the news cycle listens. Whether it’s the trade war, immigration police, vague threats of war or racist language, what the commander-in-tweet has to say often becomes a top story. But is it driving us to distraction? 

On today’s show, we’ll dig into the details of one story that may have been obscured by furor over Trump tweets: U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. Then, we’ll explore the contours of a conspiracy theory that’s developed around the president. And we’ll talk to media critic Jay Rosen and journalist Soledad O’Brien about the state of the news in the age of the tweet.

Credits

This week’s show was produced by Will Carless, Najib Aminy, and Priska Neely and edited by Jen Chien. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Katherine Rae Mondo. Hosted by Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: When news first broke that President Trump talked to the new Ukrainian President about investigating Joe Biden, Trump, unsurprisingly, took to his favorite medium, Twitter, to fire back.

 

Speaker 2: A controversy, tweeting, quote, "Now that the Democrats and the fake news media have gone bust on every other of their witch hunt schemes, they are trying to start one just as a ridiculous as the others, calling it the Ukraine witch hunt, while at the same time trying to protect Sleepy Joe Biden. Will fail again."

 

Al Letson: We've seen this play out before. Trump attacks the media as spewing fake news or claiming alternative facts, which can drown out negative news coverage. But attacking the media isn't the only way Trump uses social media. Since first launching his presidential campaign, Trump has fired off countless tweetstorms that are often so outrageous they become the leading news story.

 

Al Letson: Think about the height of the summer. Trump tweeted that four congresswomen of color, known collectively as The Squad, should go back to where they came from.

 

Speaker 3: Who tweeted Sunday they should go back to their home-

 

Speaker 4: Go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested-

 

Speaker 5: Broken and crime-infested places from which they came.

 

Al Letson: A week or so later, Trump called the city of Baltimore a, quote, "disgusting rat and rodent infested mess."

 

Al Letson: Trump remains unapologetic about those tweets. Here at Reveal, we held a big staff meeting to talk about how the media was covering Trump, and many of us agreed, myself included, that his tweets about the congresswomen were racist. We also talked about how the media pivots away from other big stories when Trump fires up his Twitter feed. My colleague Will Carless has been taking a look at the stories that have been buried and largely forgotten, and he joins me now.

 

Al Letson: Hey, Will.

 

Will Carless: Hey, Al.

 

Al Letson: Let's go back to July when President Trump tweeted about The Squad and Baltimore. What else was going on in the news?

 

Will Carless: It was a pretty disastrous week for the Trump administration. For example, you had a big poll coming out saying that Trump was trailing his Democratic rivals. You had Trump's labor secretary having to step down after it was revealed that he was heavily involved in creating a plea deal for sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It was the same week... Do you remember that disastrous visit by the vice president, Pence, to the detention facility in Texas, where he was kind of touring it? It was supposed to be a photo op, and it was just a disaster for him. There's all this negative, embarrassing stuff happening at the same time, but you and I both know what we were all talking about, right?

 

Al Letson: Yeah, the latest tweetstorm. So you went back and looked over the president's Twitter feed. What did you find?

 

Will Carless: Right. Well, again and again and again we saw the same pattern play out. There's some negative or embarrassing news story that starts to break and immediately gets hidden by just an offensive or an outrageous tweet that the president sends and then the media endlessly discusses.

 

Al Letson: Back to the tweets about The Squad. During that time, was there one issue that really got overshadowed?

 

Will Carless: This is really the best example that we found of a story that should have gotten a lot more attention than it did. The president had just vetoed bipartisan bills that would've limited the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia to be used in the ongoing war in Yemen.

 

Al Letson: It's a lot more of a complicated story to follow than what Trump is stirring up on his Twitter feed, but it's a really important story.

 

Will Carless: Yeah, it definitely is. Now, in recent weeks, Yemen has gotten a lot more attention. That's after a minority group there called the Houthis took credit for bombing a Saudi oil field which knocked out half of the kingdom's oil output. That meant people were worried about whether their gas prices in the U.S. are going to go up. But back in July, this story was not getting a lot of traction.

 

Al Letson: Right. Now we're going to dedicate some time to it. Will, you've been spending the last couple weeks digging into the story. What have you found?

 

Will Carless: Well, I've been interviewing folks who have been following this all along, and one of those people is a journalist called Rawan Shaif, who's been to Yemen several times to cover the conflict, and she lived there for a while.

 

Rawan Shaif: It's almost like screaming into a void, and that was what it was like reporting on Yemen and working on these air strikes.

 

Will Carless: Rawan is now based in London, and she leads the coverage at Bellingcat, an online investigative site. She's really good at breaking down the conflict and how it's changed.

 

Rawan Shaif: What the conflict is now is incredibly different to what it was four to five years ago, different allies, the shift in allegiances. All of that has drastically changed over the course of the conflict, but it is always incredibly good to start right at the beginning in order to understand how polarized this conflict is.

 

Rawan Shaif: In 2011, protestors all across the country in Yemen called for the ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been a president for 33 years. They did so successfully, and by 2012, he signed off to his deputy, Hadi, who is now the president of Yemen, to take his place. Now, one would've assumed that this transition would have been peaceful. However, it was anything but that.

 

Will Carless: That was during the Arab Spring, and the next big development was that there was this huge rift between Hadi, the new president, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis, who have support from Iran. The Houthis are fighting for a religious minority group who they say are being discriminated against. Well, that rift between the Houthis and the new president quickly metastasized into something much broader. It changed from a civil war to a conflict with a lot of influence from outside players.

 

Rawan Shaif: Especially given the attack on the oil facility in Saudi Arabia, I think it's becoming more and more a proxy war. It wasn't a proxy war when this first all began.

 

Will Carless: Yeah, at this point the two big players are Saudi Arabia on one side, backed by the U.S., and the Houthis on the other side.

 

Rawan Shaif: This is what makes the conflict in Yemen incredibly difficult to report on, all these minuscule changes that require a lot of context and a lot of background knowledge in order to understand their significance in the current moment.

 

Al Letson: Just to understand this correctly, the United States is mainly involved by supplying weapons and logistics. We don't have any troops on the ground or anything like that.

 

Will Carless: Yeah, that's right. That's probably one of the reasons why this hasn't taken root so strongly as a story in America, but we are providing the bombs that are killing people. Since 2015, the U.S. has been supporting the Saudi-led coalition with things like targeting assistance and, at least until recently, mid-air refueling. You got companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin that are supplying the bombs that are heading to the conflict, and Rawan Shaif has actually seen evidence of that firsthand.

 

Rawan Shaif: One of my main roles when I was in Yemen was to document sites where air strikes had occurred to an evidentiary standard. Out of the 113 that I investigated, about 80 of them had a U.S. munition tied to them. That alone always gives me the ability to speak to the U.S.'s involvement in this.

 

Will Carless: I want to note a couple of things here. First of all, this wasn't originally Trump's war. He basically inherited this situation from the Obama administration. The U.S. says it has legitimate reasons to be involved in this conflict. Yemen has long been a hotbed for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and so the U.S. has been providing arms and support to Saudi Arabia for more than four years. What's most concerned American lawmakers is that those bombs have just been used pretty indiscriminately. The Saudis have, whether by accident or on purpose, bombed everything from hospitals to apartment buildings to school buses, all using American-made weapons.

 

Al Letson: You talked to some people both in Yemen and with close ties to the country, so how is this war affecting daily life?

 

Will Carless: This has really transformed life in Yemen. One way of telling this story and just how much the country has changed is to think about weddings.

 

Jehan Hakim: Yeah, so my last trip, I was 16. I was a teenager. It was summertime. It was wedding season.

 

Will Carless: That's Jehan Hakim, who's the co-chair of the Yemeni American Alliance here in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was born in the U.S., but she visited Yemen regularly growing up.

 

Jehan Hakim: Weddings in Yemen go on for about a week, and every day it's a different outfit, and dancing in the streets, fireworks, people out until the middle of the night, stores shut down, block parties, kids, food, music. It was just a ball.

 

Speaker 9: (singing)

 

Will Carless: Well, that, of course, was before the war. Things today look very different. Joyous occasions like weddings have actually been attacked in air strikes.

 

Nasser Arrabyee: Whole families were killed, whole families. I'm talking about hundreds of families, whole families. Everyone is killed.

 

Will Carless: That's Nasser Arrabyee. He's a local journalist and filmmaker who we reached in Sana'a, the country's constitutional capital. He's covered this conflict for the New York Times and other publications.

 

Nasser Arrabyee: They bomb you while you are in the middle of the wedding, killing the bride and bridegroom and everyone, all, everyone. This is what happens. This is what it's like. Also, funerals, when you carry the dead body to the grave with hundreds of people gathering and reciting Quran. Saudi Arabia came and bombed them.

 

Will Carless: All this violence has other consequences. The UN says that up to 20 million people are dying of starvation in Yemen because of the impact of the war. They say it's the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. Here's Jehan Hakim again. She's the Yemeni-American activist here in the Bay Area.

 

Jehan Hakim: If we were to look at a conference hall, for example, and there are 100 people in this conference room, 75% of these people do not have anything to eat. Then if we multiply that times the population of Yemen, which is a little over 22 million people, 75% of Yemen's population are in need of humanitarian assistance right away, and nearly half of those that are in need are children. I know it feels like something that's so distant and far away, and we just look at numbers and statistics, but it's drastic and the need is dire.

 

Al Letson: Okay, so we started out talking about President Trump vetoing these bills to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia. How much has Congress done to try and intervene?

 

Will Carless: There have been some efforts in Congress to make an impact. Those were the couple of times where if we were going to talk about Yemen, we would talk about it when two specific bills were being discussed and voted on. A big one was this bipartisan bill basically to pull the USA out of the Yemen conflict completely back in April.

 

Ro Khanna: This is important because Yemen faces still a potential famine of millions of people, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

 

Will Carless: That's Ro Khanna, the congressman who introduced that first bill.

 

Ro Khanna: The conflict in Yemen is one of the greatest sources of tension in the Middle East, so solving the war in Yemen would do a lot to bringing greater peace to the Middle East. The fact that the Congress came together to pass Senator Sanders's and my War Powers Resolution to stop a war should have led on the front page of every newspaper.

 

Al Letson: But this wasn't on the front page of every newspaper.

 

Will Carless: Right, far from it. In this case, it didn't really matter because President Trump ended up vetoing the bill right after it was passed. As we said before, in July, he went on to veto three other bills that would've banned more than $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

 

Al Letson: Normally when the president vetoes a bill, it gets a lot of attention, and the media did cover the vetoes, but that kind of got lost in the news cycle.

 

Will Carless: Right. There really wasn't a whole lot of public awareness about this. One of the big reasons why people might've missed this news is that it coincided with Donald Trump either tweeting or saying something that was either racist or hurtful or insulting, which basically just took over the news cycle.

 

Speaker 12: Today, the president tweeted about Cummings's Baltimore district. It reads, quote, "Cummings's district is a disgusting rat and rodent infested mess." If-

 

Rawan Shaif: I distinctly remember the Baltimore tweets-

 

Will Carless: That's journalist Rawan Shaif again.

 

Rawan Shaif: ... that Trump had posted right around the time that other bills were trying to be passed to veto the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia and how that was basically picked up more so in the news. It is incredibly frustrating when tweetstorms do take that place.

 

Al Letson: It just seems to me this keeps happening whenever bad news is coming down the pike for the administration, and it just seems too much to be a coincidence is what I'm trying to get at.

 

Will Carless: Look, Trump has issued five vetoes since he took power. Four of those five vetoes have been vetoes of legislation that was agreed on by a Congress that can't agree about anything, that was agreed on by both Republicans and Democrats, that was sent to his desk, and he vetoed them. Right at the same time there's this big brouhaha about something else, and that story gets completely buried. We can't say that it's purposeful, but there is certainly like where there's smoke, there's fire.

 

Al Letson: Both of those bills have been vetoed. Is it safe to say that we are still lending support to the war in Yemen?

 

Will Carless: Because of those vetoes, yes, we are. That support has reduced somewhat. We're no longer, for example, refueling Saudi airplanes in midair, and that's something that came out of the bill that was passed in April, but we are still... We're in the process of selling Saudi Arabia and its allies more than $8 billion worth of weapons that will probably end up being used in Yemen.

 

Al Letson: Those are some pretty dire consequences.

 

Will Carless: Basically, things just keep getting worse in Yemen, or at the very least, they don't get any better. Here's Yemeni-American activist Jehan Hakim again.

 

Jehan Hakim: It's frustrating because we want the stories of the impacted highlighted so maybe Americans will think about it, Americans will care about it, Americans will want to do something about it. It is extremely hard sitting in different congressional visits showing pictures of children's body parts all over the place and trying to capture the impact in words and in images, and it being kind of not taken seriously, and then the media does the same thing.

 

Will Carless: I asked Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee as well, if he walked out of the room where he was talking to me from, what does he see? Here's what he said.

 

Nasser Arrabyee: You can see the misery in the eyes of the people who were displaced, who left their houses and came to Sana'a. They are in slums. They are in very bad places. They are in unfinished buildings. They are in some schools. We are talking about millions of people left their homes.

 

Al Letson: I can't help but think that years from now we're going to look back at this and we're going to have to be called into account for not bearing witness and doing something about this. I guess my question for you is, what's the media's responsibility and what can we do?

 

Will Carless: I'd like to think that we're at that moment of realization now, that we're looking at it and we're saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Are we playing their game? Are we looking at all the wrong stuff?" That was the point, was to go back and really dig into the stories that we missed. This was, we thought, the most important one.

 

Will Carless: You're right, we have a responsibility to pay attention to this stuff because it has a real impact. That's what Rawan Shaif told me.

 

Rawan Shaif: If you remember in 2018, when the school bus in Saada was hit by the Saudi-led coalition, and it was a business carrying children after a field trip, there was a lot of press coverage about that particular incident. Everyone from CNN to the New York Times, the Washington Post to MSNBC to even Fox News had covered it. When everyone had written about this particular strike, and also that was a strike where a U.S. munition had been used and was well-documented, you saw that actually the Saudis, they took accountability for that strike because media played such a huge role in it. People in Congress were starting to speak up. People in Parliament in the UK were starting to speak up. It was one of the very few strikes where that had happened.

 

Will Carless: The Saudis took responsibility for it and said, yeah, we shouldn't have done that, and we're going to investigate it. We see that when something gets attention in the media, it can lead to some real action, which is why it's doubly frustrating for people involved in this conflict when the media doesn't give this important issue the time that it needs.

 

Al Letson: This is just one of the stories that's been overlooked, and this took a lot of time to dig into. What else could we be missing?

 

Will Carless: I guess we don't know until we go looking. As you said earlier, it's important to cover when Trump is tweeting something racist or when he crosses boundaries, of course it is, but I think we should all have a warning light goes off in our heads that when we see the latest, greatest controversial statement, we should also be looking in the corners and looking behind that and seeing what the stories are that we could be missing too.

 

Al Letson: Will Carless, thanks for talking to me.

 

Will Carless: Thanks, Al.

 

Al Letson: President Trump expresses a lot of opinions on Twitter, but he's remained relatively quiet about the QAnon conspiracy theory that portrays him as something of a superhero in a fight against the deep state.

 

Travis View: The Trump administration has never done anything to significantly distance itself from QAnon in any way. In fact, Donald Trump's Twitter account has retweeted or quote-tweeted QAnon accounts more than 25 times.

 

Al Letson: That's coming up on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Speaker 14: Support for Reveal comes from Vistaprint. For small business owners, being prepared when an opportunity comes up is crucial. Vistaprint wants you to be able to own the now in any situation, which is why our listeners will get free shipping on all business cards, any style, any quantity.

 

Speaker 14: Just go to vistaprint.com and enter promo code REVEAL for free shipping on all business cards, any style, any quantity. Limited time offer. Own the now at vistaprint.com, promo code REVEAL. You support our show when you support our sponsors.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: As we've seen, President Trump's ability to use Twitter to send messages to his nearly 65 million followers can sometimes end up burying important news stories. A recent political poll shows 60% of respondents think President Trump's use of Twitter is a bad thing, and 70% say he tweets too much. But there's something Trump has been uncharacteristically quiet about online, an elaborate far-right conspiracy theory that has the president at its center. I'm talking about QAnon. You may have heard of it. There's a person, known only as Q, who's supposedly a high-ranking government insider who drops online bread crumbs to show believers the dark secrets of who's really running the world.

 

Al Letson: To help me dig into this and how it relates to Trump, I talked with an expert who calls himself Travis View. He uses a pen name to avoid being trolled by the QAnon faithful. He's written about it for outlets like the Washington Post and hosts a podcast that explores and debunks the nooks and crannies of this right-wing fever dream. I asked him to start with the basics.

 

Travis View: The basic premise is that the world is controlled by this cabal of Satan-worshiping sex traffickers, and these individuals, they control everything. They control Hollywood and all the politicians and the highest reaches of business and the mainstream media. In the QAnon narrative, Donald Trump knows all about this cabal, and he has been plotting for decades to help take it down. Since he has been elected, he has been working alongside this group of military intelligence officials, known as Q Team.

 

Al Letson: Right. So they believe that this imaginary Q Team is made up of double agents in the government close to the president, and they're revealing the details of the operation in coded messages. And this is all happening through online message boards like 4chan and 8chan.

 

Travis View: That is correct, yeah. They essentially believe that if they can decode these posts from who they believe to be, falsely, military intelligence officials, then they can understand what's going on behind the scenes. That's the broad outlines of the conspiracy theory.

 

Al Letson: Let me ask you, who believes in this stuff? How big is this QAnon community really, and why should we be paying attention?

 

Travis View: I think that QAnon is surprisingly large, in the sense that there does seem to be a large group of people online who are gathering and sharing notes and trying to spin their own conspiracies online. The actual size of the community is actually unknown.

 

Travis View: Recently, in Washington, D.C., on September 11th, there was the very first Great Awakening Rally. This was the very first incident in which a group of QAnon people gathered for basically a QAnon-specific event. They only managed to assemble about less than 100 people, so it's not a whole lot of people. It's not huge, but it's still far too many. The QAnon community, they believe things that are just so wholly absurd and detached from reality. Even though they aren't a huge political force, I think they're big enough to be worth paying attention to.

 

Al Letson: Do their conspiracy theories and their ideas, do they migrate into mainstream politics?

 

Travis View: The answer is yes, mostly because a lot of the basic conspiracy theories that the QAnon people hold to are conspiracy theories held more generally by people in the far right. One of them is, for example, the Clinton body count conspiracy theory. There are some QAnon followers who believe that Hillary Clinton was responsible for the tragic death of JFK Jr. in July of 1999. That conspiracy theory was retweeted by President Trump shortly after the death of Jeffrey Epstein. The general ideas within QAnon certainly do spread outside of the QAnon community.

 

Al Letson: How did you get involved in studying and understanding all this?

 

Travis View: I was sort of aware of QAnon for the first half of 2018, but I thought it was kind of a weird internet thing. I didn't pay too much attention to it. Then I noticed that Charlie Kirk, who's a very popular conservative commentator who has met with the president, he's appeared on Fox News, he speaks in colleges all over the country, he started promoting these really bogus Department of Justice statistics which claimed, falsely, that human trafficking arrests had skyrocketed under President Trump.

 

Travis View: When I tracked the source of these bogus human trafficking arrest statistics, I learned that they actually came from the QAnon community, and they had slowly trickled up all the way to Charlie Kirk's Twitter account. That worried me greatly because it made me realize that this wholly crazy, absurd conspiracy theory which should stay at the bowels of the internet, if it has to exist at all, is suddenly creeping into the highest reaches of conservative punditry. For that reason, I started tweeting about it more often in an attempt to make more people aware of what was going on here.

 

Al Letson: Has anything that QAnon has predicted, has it actually come true?

 

Travis View: No, not really. The thing is is that Q very rarely makes really solid predictions. He will imply that something terrible will happen or he'll say, "A big boom week ahead," or Q will say something very vague like, "Watch the water." It means nothing, but since water covers 70% of the planet, there's going to be an event that's newsworthy that somehow involves water, and the QAnon community will sometimes point to that.

 

Al Letson: It's basically like the trick that you get from people who are reading your fortune, who make it so vague that pretty much anything that you can imagine could fit into that box.

 

Travis View: Yeah. This is a centuries-old cold reading trick that people used with crystal balls or palm reading or tarot cards, but the principles are the same.

 

Al Letson: This QAnon conspiracy theory, it basically builds Trump up to be a superhero, really, if you think about it. All the things that they believe that he's done, and a master spy, and he's worked his whole life to correct these big injustices that he sees, how does this help him as a brand and as his outsider status? Trump is definitely not the political status quo.

 

Travis View: Yeah. This is really part of, I think, Trump's appeal generally, also in the QAnon community. I feel like people in the QAnon community, they really feel like there is this political establishment that is just calcified and locked down and will never do anything to help people like them. Trump, on the other hand, is the anti-deep state. He doesn't seem like he's on puppet strings, and he's loud and he's crazy. For that, people feel like he is almost like a bomb inside of the establishment. Yeah, it really is sort of like... It takes his general outsider status among the elites and just cranks it up to a comic-book level.

 

Al Letson: Has the Trump administration, or Trump himself via Twitter or otherwise, attempted to clear all this up and just denounce all of this stuff, or are they silent?

 

Travis View: No. The Trump administration has never done anything to significantly distance itself from QAnon in any way. In fact, Donald Trump's Twitter account has retweeted or quote-tweeted QAnon accounts more than 25 times. In fact, a QAnon follower named Stacey Dash, who's probably most famous for her role in the movie Clueless, sits as a co-chair for the Women For Trump coalition for the Trump 2020 campaign, so a QAnon follower is advising the Trump campaign.

 

Travis View: In addition to that, for the August 1st Cincinnati, Ohio, Trump rally, a cohost of this livestream called Patriots' Soapbox that basically talks about QAnon all day long was given a press pass and invited. It was photographed with Brad Parscale, the chair of the Trump 2020 campaign.

 

Al Letson: I guess my question is, if you QAnon is really a small minority within the Trump coalition, why does it matter if he calls them out or not?

 

Travis View: I think it matters to the QAnon community because they want that validation. They want basically Trump himself to somehow acknowledge them in any way that they can.

 

Travis View: I think it's important more broadly because there was an intelligence bulletin from the Phoenix field office of the FBI which warned about the threat of conspiracy theory domestic extremism, and actually named QAnon specifically as a possible source of this extremism. QAnon is I think, by definition, an extremist movement, and it would be helpful if the administration made it clear that they want no part of this extremist movement.

 

Al Letson: This is all reminding me of Pizzagate, another conspiracy theory that sounds really similar. This was before QAnon, but it had some of the same elements. Top Democrats, including the Clintons, were devil-worshiping pedophiles. They used a pizza place in Washington, D.C., to traffic children. Now, all of this is totally false, but one of the people who believed it ended up going to the restaurant with an AR-15, pointing it at an employee, then firing shots at a locked door trying to save these nonexistent children. Do you see a connection between how this Pizzagate conspiracy spread and QAnon?

 

Travis View: Obviously, there's also a lot of similarities in the theory, that the world is controlled by a group of satanic child-sacrificers. But, well, in Pizzagate, all of the evil activity was located in one location, which was Comet Ping Pong and Pizzeria in Washington, D.C. In QAnon, it's much more broad. It's the belief that it's going on all over the world everywhere, and basically everyone with any high degree of power or influence or fame is in on it.

 

Al Letson: Thinking about Pizzagate, that ended up with no one died or no one got hurt, but definitely it was a scary situation. What about QAnon? Do you that it'll take the same trajectory, and people will actually become radicalized by this?

 

Travis View: What's very different about Pizzagate and QAnon is that the worst incident, like you mentioned, was that a man walked into Comet Ping Pong, fired a single shot inside of the pizzeria, and is currently serving a four-year sentence. QAnon, on the other hand, already has a body count, and that comes in the form of the death of the mob boss Frank Cali at the hands of a man named Anthony Comello.

 

Travis View: Anthony Comello, according to his defense attorney, is a man who was very, very enmeshed in the QAnon community and, in fact, tried to perform citizen's arrests of many high-profile figures that are mentioned by Q, like Congressman Adam Schiff. Well, he apparently tried to perform a citizen's arrest of Frank Cali, and when this went wrong, he wound up shooting and killing him. As part of his defense in his second-degree murder trial, his defense attorneys are basically arguing that he was so deeply enmeshed in this QAnon fantasy world that he didn't understand what he was doing, and he thought that he was doing the right thing because he so fully believed in QAnon. So already QAnon is more dangerous and deadly than Pizzagate ever was.

 

Al Letson: You use a pseudonym. Is that because you're scared of what the QAnon community would do if they found out who you are?

 

Travis View: If I'm being perfectly honest, I'm not that worried. There are many other fantastic journalists who cover QAnon who are even more prominent than me, but on the other hand I do appreciate the extra level of security that a pseudonym provides me. Ideally, I would prefer them not to dox me, not to know my real name, but at the same time I don't feel that threatened if I were to be doxed. But it is an added layer of protection that I appreciate.

 

Al Letson: That was Travis View, writer and co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast.

 

Al Letson: How should we be looking at what the president says or doesn't say online?

 

Soledad O'Brien: I don't think it's just random, that he rolls out of bed and starts to tweet. I think he understands what will follow.

 

Al Letson: That's coming up on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: The Trump presidency has been a paradigm shift on so many levels. It's shaken up the rules for how the press covers the office and how the president interacts with the press. In many instances, he's cut out the reporters and the networks altogether.

 

Donald Trump: No matter what you do, no matter how good, no matter how great it is, they don't report it in a positive fashion, so when I can reach, whether it's 90 million or 100 million or 80 million, however many people it may turn out to be when you add everything up, and then of course it gets disseminated from there, when I can reach that many people, Twitter is a wonderful thing for me because I get the word out.

 

Al Letson: We wanted to dig into the president's Twitter strategy with two people who think a lot about the role and responsibilities of the media, and who also happen to be power Twitter users themselves.

 

Jay Rosen: My name is Jay Rosen. I teach journalism at New York University.

 

Al Letson: Jay also writes a blog called PressThink.

 

Soledad O'Brien: This is Soledad O'Brien. I am an anchor and a reporter.

 

Al Letson: Soledad hosts a weekly show called Matter of Fact.

 

Al Letson: We started talking about where journalists focus their attention.

 

Al Letson: Trump uses Twitter as a direct way to reach out to his followers and also to the American people just in general. When he does these tweetstorms and causes all of these controversies, it seems that the media tends to rush to the tweets that are happening and begin reporting on those, and not on the actual policy decisions that are being made away from his Twitter handle?

 

Soledad O'Brien: Reporter friends of mine would say all the time that they'd be working on a story and then all of a sudden you'd be forced to run off and cover some tweet. But, listen, everybody uses Twitter to reach out directly. That's the entire point of Twitter. I think that the media has not figured out how not to be used. The bosses have really decided that they're going to chase everything. That's a decision that comes from above. Someone says, "No, no, you got to leave this and go chase that," and so that becomes the new narrative.

 

Soledad O'Brien: You see on Twitter a lot reporters just quoting Trump. Even when they know full well that he's lying, that this quote is absolutely, objectively false, it is a lie, they will quote it. They would quote "President Trump says the moon is made of cheese," and will feel perfectly fine. Yes, the president said that. My argument would be if you know it's a lie, if you know this thing to be untrue and you're elevating it as a truthful statement, there's something very wrong if your job is journalism. I think that's the big part of the problem.

 

Jay Rosen: It's really amazing, Soledad, that this statement is true. The most potent force for misinforming the American public is the president of the United States. He has the platform, and he continually does it. The Washington Post is now up to 12,000 falsehoods or lies told from that platform. This pattern takes advantage of the fact that every outrageous, divisive, dumb, uninformed, counterfactual, explosive, ridiculous, absurd tweet from the president, as well as his answers in back-and-forths with the press, are newsworthy by traditional definitions of news. What's really happened is that Trump has broken that system, and it's very difficult to get people who have been working in one way to now reflect on a rulebook that doesn't make any sense anymore.

 

Al Letson: Now we're three years into the Trump presidency. Do you think President Trump is strategically trying to dominate the news cycle, or are these just random thoughts?

 

Jay Rosen: I don't think it's strategic. I think it's the acting out of a malignant narcissist's personality, and there's a desperate need for attention, not a strategy at all.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I actually think all of that describes a strategy. I think there is a strategy when a toddler interrupts something and-

 

Jay Rosen: There's a logic, not a strategy.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I think sometimes there's an understanding that if I do X, Y will happen. If I run into the dining room while my parents are having their fancy dinner-

 

Jay Rosen: Well, at a toddler level, yes-

 

Soledad O'Brien: ... it'll force-

 

Jay Rosen: ... there is a strategy.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I believe it really is a toddler-level strategy that's not strategic, but that you know that you can disrupt everything if you do X. I think there is intention around it. I don't think it's just random, that he rolls out of bed and starts to tweet. I think he understands what will follow. Again, I think this is a true failure of journalism is that reporters then just follow.

 

Al Letson: How do we fix it, though? Because it would seem to me that because he is the president of the United States, that we do have to put some weight behind what he tweets. At the same time, we have to keep pushing stories about what he's doing away from Twitter and what the administration is doing as well. So how do you fix it?

 

Soledad O'Brien: I think in every story what journalists are supposed to be providing is context. I remember, the very beginning of Trump's presidency, arguing with a reporter from the New York Times. I said, "You don't have to cover the president's rallies," and they were just stunned. They couldn't even imagine a world in which you would not go and live-cover the president's rallies. I'm like, "You just don't have to. There's no rule that says you have to." I would argue, if you know the person is spewing lies, you're doing a disservice.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I think a similar thing. I think you have to sit down and decide that there's something wrong with the way you're covering it. That's a big first step. Then you have to say, "Well, we're going to add context. We're never going to say the president says the moon is made of cheese. We will never do that. We're going to say, 'The president inaccurately stated today at a press conference that the moon was made of cheese, when scientists have said for the last X number of years the moon is not.'" You just have to do the work of providing context if you're going to give it a platform.

 

Al Letson: Jay, as a professor who's teaching journalism, how do you talk to young students about that issue in itself?

 

Jay Rosen: I try to start with the stakes. I really think that journalism as a practice, the free press in countries around the world, is under threat. It's under attack. Forms of politics that treat the press as a hate object are succeeding and on the rise, not just in the United States, but around the world. Couple that with business model challenges in journalism. Couple that with the power of the platforms which don't have any journalistic responsibility. Then add the rising mistrust of the press and of journalists as professionals, and it should be clear to students, as it is to me, that we can lose journalism. We can lose the press.

 

Jay Rosen: One of the things that is causing that loss is that newsrooms, though they knew they had to diversify, never really did. Not everyone would agree with me on this, but I believe one of the problems, one of the reasons that it hasn't is that you hire people from different races, backgrounds, and the theory there is that they're going to bring their perspective to the newsroom, and it's needed because it's missing. Then when they get there, they learn that they're supposed to leave their perspective at the door and just prove that they can be serious news people. That contradiction is founded on the fact that the bosses wanted a more diverse newsroom, they said they did, and they also wanted to preserve the view from nowhere, or objectivity, at the center of that newsroom.

 

Soledad O'Brien: That objectivity from the center of the newsroom, read that as an older white dude perspective.

 

Jay Rosen: Exactly.

 

Soledad O'Brien: Make sure if you're coming in, that you can figure out how to mimic that.

 

Al Letson: How does the coverage and the dynamic change when the president says controversial, i.e., racist things that target communities of color?

 

Soledad O'Brien: Listen, all I can say is early on I knew that my personal strategy would be to call out racism. When no one is willing to say the word lie or no one is willing to say the word racist or no one is willing to say that's bigoted, then everybody sits around and makes up these words, but we al know, wink wink-

 

Jay Rosen: Racially charged-

 

Soledad O'Brien: Racially charged.

 

Jay Rosen: Tinged.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I do think someone needs to be the one to say, "This is bullshit, and we're going to call it this." Listen, I have zero to lose. I run my own company. There's no one who can pull my contract. So I feel very fortunate because I used to have to play a game, and I don't have to anymore. I really get to do whatever I want to do. My goal in doing that is to say to other people, "This thing that I'm saying is true, and there's evidence around it," and so you can be free now to say it, or at least we're going to insert this conversation into the public space.

 

Al Letson: Jay, what about you?

 

Jay Rosen: I'm less interested in whether journalists call the president a racist or whether they label an episode racist. I think it's time for political journalists to just treat the Trump wave and, as I said, his coalition as being built around a kind of racism, othering, that this is the Trump reelection effort. This is the Trump movement. This is the logic of their position. Rather than these explosions around the term racism, I would rather see racism incorporated as routine analysis into how the Trump machine operates.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I think journalists, though, have a hard time even saying the word. I think that's two more steps down from where many are. I think that what I've tried to do is to make people uncomfortable, and it's actually very much fun to do. It's asking someone, "So what does racially charged mean, because you just wrote that? What does it mean? What is racially charged? Why are you hesitating to call this racist?"

 

Al Letson: Have you ever got a satisfactory answer when you ask somebody, "What does that mean?"

 

Soledad O'Brien: Yeah, if you really push them, they'll tell you, "I just feel like we can't go all the way."

 

Al Letson: Well, I think the bar is extremely high when it comes to calling somebody a racist. In order to call somebody a racist-

 

Soledad O'Brien: Oh, yes.

 

Al Letson: ... they will have to have done Dylan Roof-type damage before someone says, "That's racist."

 

Soledad O'Brien: Oh, yes, over years usually, or ending in a massacre. Yes, the bar for calling someone a racist is very high, but I do think there is a value in forcing people to take a look at literally what they're saying and just having them hesitate for the moment before they just write it.

 

Al Letson: I'm curious, after this whole big conversation, who do you guys think is getting it right? In this Twitter age that we're in and the Trump administration flooding the zone, what news organizations do you guys tune into? Who do you really think stands out?

 

Soledad O'Brien: I really read and watch everything. As much as I criticize the New York Times, I'm probably the biggest retweeter of the New York Times. I think they do an excellent job on a lot of the stuff, and I think they do a terrible job on a handful of things. As much as I criticize CNN, and I think they do many things really poorly, I think there's some really good reporting that's happening at CNN. I love the Washington Post. I think they make some big mistakes sometimes.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I think everybody has some really, really good moments, and then unfortunately there's lots of opportunities for mistakes. I'm sure anybody who watched my show would say, "I was watching Matter of Fact this week, and I felt like Soledad did a good job on the first one, but the second one was kind of lame and she could've done it better, and the third one she came back." I'm sure. We're all like.

 

Al Letson: Jay, what about you?

 

Jay Rosen: I would also add I think the Washington Post has done one thing particularly well, which they do manage to describe what's going on in the Trump government in a more direct way than their competitors do. I think that deserves to be recognized. But I don't think any news organization has figured out this puzzle that we've been talking about. Like Soledad, I just graze across the market and I look for things that are good. There's no newsroom that I think has figured this out.

 

Soledad O'Brien: I think if there's something that interests you, it's actually pretty easy today to follow the thread of a story, and sometimes that story gets developed over time. I would say read a local source and read a national take on it, and then I think you get a pretty well-rounded view. Now, you can't do that for every single story. You'll lose your mind. But I think if there are issues that you care about, then you hop into both those individuals and the thread of the story that is suddenly interesting to you. Social media makes it very easy to follow those threads.

 

Al Letson: We are already in the election season. Are you guys a little scared? I'm not talking about scared for the country. I mean scared for the business of media, of news.

 

Jay Rosen: Yeah.

 

Soledad O'Brien: Yeah. It's depressing. First of all, it goes on too long, and everybody has given up any kind of ghost on the idea that it's about informing the public. It is a really good opportunity to run commercials which you can charge a lot of money for, which will make a lot of money for the network. It's not about actually digging into policy or figuring out who really is making sense or who actually has some proposals that are impossible to fund or anything like that. It's same old, same old. Who looked better? Who had the witty comeback? It's just such a stupid way to judge leadership, and that's just sad.

 

Jay Rosen: Yeah. When I look at this 2020 campaign, I approach it with trepidation because one of the things I've learned by studying Trump and the press is that you cannot keep from getting sucked into his whirlwind of lies and hate, which is his agenda, without an agenda of your own. What I mean by an agenda is a set of priorities that you know resonate with the people you're trying to inform. You derive your agenda from asking the people you're trying to inform, what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? Not who are you going to vote for, which party do you favor, or which candidate do you like, but what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?

 

Jay Rosen: Now, if you ask that question in a genuine way and people answer it in a genuine way, they're not going to give you the names of these issue buckets that political journalists talk about. They're going to talk about their lives. Then the campaign coverage and the campaign itself is supposed to connect people's lives to the choices we make in politics. The inside game and the horse race style of analysis short-circuits that process, and we never get to find out what the public agenda for the campaign is.

 

Jay Rosen: I'm going to make this prediction. The press cannot keep from getting sucked into Trump's agenda unless it has one and possesses one of its own and articulates it. This is just so contrary to the way that our major news organizations run that I don't think they're able to do it. That's why I approach this campaign with trepidation.

 

Al Letson: Jay Rosen and Soledad O'Brien, thank you so much for joining me today.

 

Jay Rosen: Thank you, Al.

 

Soledad O'Brien: Thanks.

 

Al Letson: Jay Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and writes the blog PressThink. Soledad O'Brien is a reporter and host of the weekly show Matter of Fact.

 

Al Letson: Our producers for this week's show are Will Carless, Najib Aminy, and ladies and gentlemen, a warm welcome to our new producer Priska Neely. That's the crowd, Priska. That's the crowd. Jen Chien edited the show. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Katherine Rae Mondo. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camerado 00:50:36], Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 18: From PRX.