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Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, and the Dissemination of Fake News

In Arts & Letters, News and Current Events, Politics, Rhetoric on May 8, 2019 at 6:00 am

We hear a lot about “fake news” these days. Until I was its victim, I was skeptical about the extent of its existence.

Now I understand why trust in the media is so low and why news networks are associated with leftist bias. I have learned, as well, that fake news does not necessarily consist of flagrant, outright lying; it can involve exaggeration, subtle distortion, fabrication, deception, insinuation, innuendo, opinion dressed up as fact, and guilt-by-association.

Here’s my story.

Last November, I gave a lecture about decentralization to the Abbeville Institute, an organization whose stated purpose is “to critically explore what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition.” The full text of the lecture, from which I read verbatim, is available here. The lecture was filmed and recorded and is available here. It does not mention secession, race, or the Confederacy. The focus of the conference was political secession and decentralization—controversial topics, to be sure, but important ones in light of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Brexit, and recent separatist movements in Eritrea, Quebec, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Kosovo, Angola, Catalan, Cyprus, China, and elsewhere. Of the speakers at the conference, only Dr. Donald Livingston, the president of the Abbeville Institute and a professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University, and I were Southerners. The other speakers represented diverse political commitments and came from different geographic backgrounds.

Six days after my talk, ThinkProgress, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank, ran an article by Mr. Casey Michel titled “Neo-Confederates have failed for the past 150 years. Now, they have a new ally.” The article features my photograph beneath this title, beside the photograph of Mr. Larry Secede Kilgore, a man I have never met, do not know, and had never heard of before reading about him in the article. Displaying my photograph prominently beneath the label “Neo-confederate” gives the impression that I am the face of that movement—or that I am the new ally of the so-called Neo-confederates referred to in the title. The article features two photographs of me but not of four of the other seven speakers at the conference (a separate article that Mr. Michel wrote about the conference, published on November 11, 2018, features a photograph of Mr. Michael Boldin, the executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center). Nor is there a photograph of Mr. Marcus Ruiz Evans, the principal subject of Mr. Michel’s piece and a young Mexican American who touts himself as a progressive advocating California’s secession from the United States of America.

The opening line of Mr. Michel’s article calls the Abbeville Institute conference “a conclave for neo-Confederates, white nationalists, and members of the fringe far right,” and there I am, pictured front and center, standing at the podium, the ostensible leader of the moment if not the movement. Without directly calling me a neo-Confederate or a white nationalist, Mr. Michel and the editors at ThinkProgress portrayed me as one.

I am not a neo-Confederate. In fact, I have written that “Confederate cultural values have been discredited.” Had Mr. Michel researched me, moreover, he would have found my scholarship that both analyzes and condemns white supremacy.  As just two representative examples among many, he might have read “Haunted by History’s Ghostly Gaps: A Literary Critique of the Dred Scott Decision and Its Historical Treatments” (published in 2009 by The Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives) or “From Natural Law to Natural Inferiority: The Construction of Racist Jurisprudence in Early Virginia” (published in 2013 by PEER English: Journal of New Critical Thinking). I have, moreover, been at the forefront of criticisms of the American Bar Association and state bar associations for their regulations that disproportionately impact ethnic minorities and reduce diversity in the legal profession.

My spouse is not white; my children are mixed race. It is deeply offensive and hurtful to me to be misrepresented and mischaracterized as sympathetic to white nationalism, an extremist ideology that would denounce and disparage my own family.

On August 25, 2017, after the tragic events in Charlottesville, I signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today.”  This letter, the terms of which I still affirm in their entirety, states,

Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not.  Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes.  And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination.  What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years.

The letter goes on to state,

Racism should be denounced by religious and civil leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

I continue, as always, to denounce racism, white nationalism, and white supremacy, all of which conflict with my sincerely and deeply held Christian faith.

Mr. Michel states that I once worked as a staff attorney to Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court.  That’s true.  The article fails to note, however, that I left that position when, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice Moore issued an administrative order to Alabama’s probate judges directing them not to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Mentioning my former employment with Chief Justice Moore is a textbook example of the guilt-by-association, ad hominem fallacy that professional journalists should avoid at all costs, it being a mode of inferior logic and unsophisticated argumentation.

As most journalists are aware, moreover, the political views of law clerks and the judges for whom they clerk are not necessary similar. In many cases they differ drastically. Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, reportedly hired at least one law clerk per term who identified as “liberal” because he wished to cover blind spots that his own jurisprudence prevented him from seeing.

Mr. Michel’s article claims that most of the Abbeville Institute conference attendees “were already graying,” and that “almost all of [them] were white.” What to make of this overt ageism? And who were these non-white attendees? Why did Mr. Michel deprive them of a voice? Would they have agreed with his description of the conference as a place where “white supremacy [was] simmering just below the surface” and there was “a lingering presence of neo-Confederacy”? If so, why were they there? Does Mr. Michel’s failure or refusal to interview them unwittingly reflect an inchoate or unconscious racism predicated on an assumed sense of superiority, on a paternalism in which Mr. Michel plays the role of cultural better tasked with analyzing his less sophisticated subordinates who are in need his enlightened assistance? Has Mr. Michel instantiated the “white savior” complex? Wouldn’t an account of the multiethnic nature of this conference have been more interesting, nuanced, and instructive than Mr. Michel’s simplistic depiction of a homogeneous group of likeminded “people preaching tired ideas”?

Mr. Michel’s article violates journalistic ethics and standards, calling into question not only his integrity but also the integrity of his employer, ThinkProgress, and its editors.

I wrote the editors of ThinkProgress to request a retraction or revision of Mr. Michel’s article—if not for me, I stated, then for the sake of ThinkProgress’s credibility as a journalism outlet.  Doing so, I added, might save them from embarrassment. Mr. Michel responded by asking, “Would you like to send a statement for the recording [sic] clarifying your opposition to being associated with white nationalism, or would you prefer that we quote from your email?” But I don’t just oppose being associated with white nationalism; I oppose white nationalism, an odious ideology that I condemn. At least Mr. Michel has acknowledged in writing that he associated me with white nationalism. He might have denied that erroneous association to avoid exposing his dishonesty.

Ms. Kiley Kroh, a senior editor at ThinkProgress, echoed Mr. Michel’s offer to include my perspective or statement in the article, but if I agreed to that, I would have validated the article, which was unworthy of validation. So I did not settle with Mr. Michel’s or Ms. Kroh’s offer, which seemed to me less like a sincere concession and more like a deceptive tactic. Instead, I sent Mr. Michel several questions—for the record.

My questions concerned the journalistic integrity of his article, in particular regarding the verifiability of his sources and the unprofessionalism of his methods.

Anyone can show up at a place and claim to have heard there all kinds of unflattering, objectionable conversations. A journalist can allege that some person or another said this or that if he or she does not document his or her sources. Absent the names of the individuals Mr. Michel quotes, there’s no way to track them down; his readers are left to take him at his word. He identifies only two interviewees by name: Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Kurt Burkhalter. (In a separate article about the conference, he also identifies Mr. Tom Glass, whose brief remarks were delivered publically to the entire audience—in other words, who was not interviewed by Mr. Michel, as I confirmed with Mr. Glass by phone.)

I tracked down Mr. Burkhalter, whose name, contrary to Mr. Michel’s reporting, is Karl, not Kurt. We emailed and spoke by phone. He told me that Mr. Michel did not identify himself as a reporter or a member of the press or even introduce himself to Mr. Burkhalter.  He doesn’t remember speaking to Mr. Michel. Nor did Mr. Michel ask Mr. Burkhalter to speak for the record. If Mr. Burkhalter was recorded, it was not to his knowledge.

What if Mr. Michel’s multiple unnamed sources do not exist? What if they aren’t real people? What if their remarks and conversations never occurred? What if Mr. Michel just invented them out of thin air to demean his subjects? Mr. Michel did not respond to my request for information about these people; nor did he state whether he identified himself as a journalist to them (if they exist) or recorded their remarks (if they occurred). And were there “roughly 60 conference attendees,” as Mr. Michel claims here, or “some 75 participants,” as he claims here?

Mr. Michel quotes one unnamed attendee as saying, “I can’t believe we’re in Texas and there’s no grits! …. Y’all been invaded by Yankees.”  I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could track this person down or prove that he or she exists. He has not responded.

He alleges that unnamed attendees “complained that ‘diversity’ was lowering the average IQ of Harvard,” and, at lunch, “swapped stories of supposed ‘Muslim-controlled no-go zones’ in the U.K. and support for British proto-fascist Tommy Robinson.” I was present at this lunch and heard no conversations to this effect. I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that these attendees actually exist. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that an unnamed attendee stated, “You can’t bring up secession without being labeled a white nationalist.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that this statement was actually made or that this attendee actually exists. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that “one of the organizers” of the conference “hollered that Confederate flags would be referred to as ‘Freedom Flags’ and were available to any interested attendees.” I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify that these statements were actually made or that this conference organizer actually exists. He has not responded. Dr. Livingston, however, has informed me that he, Dr. Livingston, was the only conference organizer, and that he hollered no such thing about Freedom Flags.

Mr. Michel’s interviews, if or to the extent they occurred, were with only attendees, not any of the speakers at the conference. Is that because the speakers had multiple graduate degrees among them, because their responses would have been measured and sophisticated and, thus, incompatible with the narrative that Mr. Michel wanted to tell? Is it because the speakers are real, traceable people who could be reached for comment or rebuttal?

Mr. Michel alleges that attendees at the conference loathed Abraham Lincoln. I asked him, for the record, if he could provide evidence for that claim or whether he interviewed any attendees about Lincoln. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel alleges that speakers at the conference “had waxed poetically for Dixie.” I didn’t see any speakers do such a thing; therefore, I asked Mr. Michel, for the record, if he could verify or document his claim. He has not responded.

Mr. Michel calls nullification “a discredited legal principle supposedly permitting states to disregard federal law.” Because he provides no attribution for this claim, I take it to be his own. When I asked him how he squared this opinion with the fact that certain states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use in contravention of federal law, he did not respond.

*

On November 20, 2018, I emailed the other speakers at the conference to forward them my written correspondence with Mr. Michel.  Mr. Evans responded later that day claiming that Mr. Michel had previously written false or misleading information about YesCalifornia, the political action committee with which Mr. Evans is affiliated and which promotes California’s secession from the United States. So I decided to take a closer look at Mr. Michel’s claims about YesCalifornia in the article that I felt had targeted me.

This article claims, without providing or citing evidence, that YesCalifornia is “a Kremlin-backed group” that “has acted as one of the most obvious fronts for Russian interference efforts over the past few years.” I asked Mr. Michel whether he could verify or substantiate this claim. He has not responded. Curiously, however, he has written elsewhere that “[n]o evidence has emerged of direct Kremlin funding for the Calexit initiative, or similar endeavors in the United States.”

Mr. Michel also states that YesCalifornia was “reportedly helped by the architects of Russia’s social media interference efforts—one of the few American organizations directly linked to the types of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that meddled in U.S. politics the past few years.” The words “linked directly” hyperlink to a BBC News article (“‘Russian trolls’ promoted California independence,” November 4, 2017) that does not claim a direct link between Russian social media accounts and YesCalifornia. Rather, the article states that social media accounts banned by Twitter due to ties to the Internet Research Agency—“a St. Petersburg-based ‘troll factory”—were pushing #Calexit hashtags and linking “to other social media accounts advocating the secession of California from the United States.”

I asked Mr. Evans about this BBC article. He wrote back that Mr. Michel “fails to point out that the article he links to directly contradicts the narrative that he is pushing, which is that Calexit is mostly, or nothing but a Russian backed social movement.” He clarified that, “although the FBI was instructing all technology companies to shut down all social media counts linked to the Russian government, the YesCalifornia Twitter and Facebook page have been untouched and are still active at this time, proving that the FBI itself confirms that YesCalifornia is an actual organic group.”

Mr. Michel is quoted in the BBC article as saying that the Anti-Globalisation Movement “received funding from the Kremlin to organize this conference to pay for the travel and lodging of American and European secession movements,” and that Louis Marinelli (a cofounder of YesCalifornia) spoke at an Anti-Globalisation conference. Mr. Michel provides no citation or evidence to back up his claim that the Kremlin helped to subsidize this conference. The fact that Mr. Marinelli spoke at a conference hosted by an organization with which he is not affiliated, moreover, hardly qualifies as a “direct link” between YesCalifornia and Russian interference in U.S. politics. In fact, Mr. Michel told a reporter for Playboy that “there’s no indication Marinelli himself has received funding from the Russian government,” adding, however, that “Yes California received rent-free space for its ‘Embassy’…provided by the Kremlin funded Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia.”

I know little about YesCalifornia or California secession movements, and even less about Russian meddling in U.S. politics. I cannot affirm or deny Mr. Michel’s claims about them. That, however, is precisely the problem: an educated reader ought to be able to evaluate the truthfulness of claims in articles that are published for a mass readership. Such claims should be fact-checked and scrutinized before they reach print. Journalists must be careful to distinguish fact from opinion, and possibility from actuality. They must clarify when they are speculating and when they are registering uncontroverted data. It isn’t fair to the general public for the media to convey vague or unsubstantiated allegations, placing the burden on skeptical readers to affirm or deny reported claims. Most readers are not lawyers or journalists trained and equipped for such rigorous undertakings. They don’t have time systematically to discredit every journalist who raises suspicions.

*

As a lawyer, I could be reprimanded, maybe even disbarred, for the kind of professional misconduct that Mr. Michel has demonstrated in his intemperate reporting about the Abbeville Institute’s conference. Shouldn’t journalists be held equally accountable?  Arguably, at least in certain circumstances, their capacity to harm society is greater than lawyers’, given that their writings are immediately available worldwide whereas the actions of most lawyers most of the time are confined to their jurisdiction and the parties to a case. If I could be removed from my profession or disciplined for actions similar to those of Mr. Michel in this instance, why shouldn’t he be removed from his?  Will media companies, including those that employ him, care about the flaws in his reporting?  Will they continue to feature his writings or air his opinions on television? Will his other work be scrutinized to ensure that it has truthfully conveyed verifiable facts to the general public? And what will happen to him if concerned readers discover a pattern of professional misconduct in his work, or that he has misled the public?

Mr. Michel’s coverage of the Abbeville Institute is hardly bold. It’s not an example of the little guy standing up to some big, bad, powerful corporation. The Abbeville Institute has comparatively little money and resources.  According to 990s available online, the Abbeville Institute reported year-end net assets or fund balances of $360,854 in 2015, $213,060 in 2014, and 178,760 in 2013. Its reported total revenue was $138,041 in 2015, $97,873 in 2014, and $56,291 in 2013. By contrast, in 2016, the Center for American Progress Action Fund reported net assets or fund balances of $4,225,946 and total revenue of $7,751,090. (According to the IRS, a 501(c)(4) may, unlike a 501(c)(3), “further its [tax] exempt purposes through lobbying as its primary activity without jeopardizing its exempt status.”) The Abbeville Institute is tiny by comparison.

Nor have I found anything published by the Abbeville Institute that could be described as “white nationalist,” which is defined as “the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.” The Abbeville Institute’s archives include favorable portraits of Jimmy Carter and civil rights, and its authors have characterized white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan as anti-Southern or as breaches of the Southern tradition. Vietnamese, Jewish, and an African-American authors have contributed to its blog. Mr. Michel cites this Abbeville Institute blog post as evidence of thinly veiled racism, but fails to note its celebration of ethnic diversity in the South.

No doubt scholars associated with the Abbeville Institute have expressed views with which I disagree. That would be the case with nearly any organization, given that my idiosyncratic opinions make me difficult to categorize along a simplistic left-right spectrum or within conventional political taxonomies. Because I believe in the merits and benefits of decentralization, I agreed enthusiastically to discuss this topic before a captive Abbeville Institute audience. Because I believe, moreover, that the American South is not a categorically bad place, that its history is, among other things, complex and worthy of serious study, I have been an associated scholar of the Abbeville Institute for many years. That fact alone should not disqualify my views, which deserve to be heard on their merits.

I remain friendly with academics, writers, and journalists on the left.  I take their ideas and writing seriously and engage them in constructive, civil, and good-faith dialogue so that I may better understand their views while refining and revising my own.  We have mutual respect for one another.  For many years, I myself was a man of the left. I still hold certain views with which self-identifying progressives would agree.

When progressives who know me read Mr. Michel’s article, they will, I suspect, immediately question his credibility and sincerity, even if they also question my judgment for speaking to the Abbeville Institute, a group with which they would not align themselves. It would seem to me that ThinkProgress would wish to attract a wider readership in states like Alabama, where progressives are few in number.  By associating me with white nationalists and neo-Confederates, however, ThinkProgress may drive away reasonable, level-headed moderates in Alabama whose vast presence here revealed itself with the election of Doug Jones to the United States Senate. In short, ThinkProgress risks, with the publication of Mr. Michel’s article, mainstreaming what it seeks to depict as extreme and alienating the very audience it seeks to attract—all because one reporter did not do his homework or adhere to professional standards of reporting.

I am not familiar with Mr. Michel’s larger body of work, but I wonder whether his publishers should revisit his writings to ensure that they contain verifiable facts, identifiable sources, proper attribution, and appropriate context. Mr. Michel has demonstrated, with his coverage of the Abbeville Institute conference, that he’s capable of distortion and unprofessionalism. Might he have been unprofessional in his previous writings?

Journalism as a profession depends upon the public trust, its chief function being to disseminate reliable information for public knowledge. People should make informed decisions whenever possible; the accurate and extensive communication of uncontroverted facts enables them to do so. The consequences of unprofessional reporting are potentially far-reaching and wide-ranging: What would it mean if the public, en masse, lost faith in the media, if there were no reliable fora for information gathering and transmission, if the definition of “information” was itself subverted beyond recognition?  How would we make informed decisions?  How could we knowledgeably mobilize ourselves into purposeful communities with shared values and commitments?

I believe that a diversity of thought and opinion is essential to the flourishing of society, and I admire ThinkProgress for standing up for ideas that fulfill and promote its core mission. I believe strongly in the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and worry daily that they are under threat. That is why I cannot tolerate journalistic error and mischaracterization that cause harm to me and my family—and to honest journalists everywhere. Because the freedom of speech and the press is vital, it must not be cheapened or undermined by lies, fraud, or unprofessionalism.

This is not the story of some hack scribbler dashing off a dubious hit-job or smear piece. It’s bigger than that; it’s an illustrative example of the more general decline in journalistic standards, ethics, and accountability that contributes to widespread distrust of the media.

I am a human being, not some online robot or avatar.  My wife, my two children (aged seven and five), my mother and father, my elderly grandmother, my siblings—they are all living, breathing human beings who know me and love me, and who have been demoralized, disturbed, and disheartened by Mr. Michel’s article.

And guess what? If any of them trusted the media before, they don’t now. And they’ll applaud President Trump every time he attacks the media for “fake news.” And if there are others like them across America who are likewise victims of bad or unethical reporting, who do not believe that the media fairly informs the public about matters of general concern, then anger at the media will spread; trust in journalists will diminish; “news” will no longer be considered news.

Claas Relotius’s fabrications over several years validated growing skepticism about an impartial news media, as did numerous media statements about the Covington Catholic High School students that video footage later contradicted. I can add Mr. Michel’s reporting of me to the list of reasons I am skeptical about the truth of many stories the news media disseminates.

It is incumbent upon journalists to avoid unethical reporting and unprincipled methods that demean their profession and undercut the good-faith work of responsible reporters who strive to provide accurate information and verifiable data. The stakes are high in this “Information Age” in which we do not yet fully understand the effects and potential consequences of our new technologies on society. When in doubt, it’s best to bear in mind the ancient proverb: “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.” For we’ve had enough troubles in these troublesome times.

Journalists should stick to facts and not seek to destroy their ideological opponents with reckless words. And we, all of us, left and right, should unite to hold them accountable if they don’t.

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