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This Book I’m Reading Just Perfectly Explained Trump’s Cabinet Picks

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I’m currently reading The Dictator’s Handbook, which is a fantastic book about a completely different way to look at government.

No, it’s not a book about bashing Trump because he’s a dictator and blah blah blah. That would be boring, and the book was written in 2012 anyway, i.e. long before Trump was a politics thing.

What’s interesting about the book is that it describes an entirely different dimension to government. It’s like everything you’ve ever heard was in two dimensions, and the book gives you a z-axis.

The short version is that terms like autocracy, dictatorship, monarchy, etc. are somewhat academic and unuseful terms when it comes to describing how a government works. The author instead breaks things down in a singular, fundamental way.

Gaining and maintaining power. It’s quite Machiavellian, except far more formalized into a simple and transparent model rather than a collection of aphorisms. The central concept is that someone who seizes power must surround themselves with loyal people who have reasons to stay loyal and who can be trusted not to desert or betray them.

As for the Trump situation, it instantly illuminated his cabinet picks.

Trump isn’t hiring experts. He’s hiring loyalists.

He’s putting people into place who he can trust. People who had his back when things got nasty. And people he can control and manipulate.

He also broadcasts a powerful signal of fear to anyone who betrays him. He publicly states that he makes lists of those who oppose him, so that he may repay them back in the future. Romney just tasted that firsthand.

It’s extremely Castro-like. Or any other powerful leader. Castro lasted 50 years in power, and virtually everyone wanted him dead. He’d regularly prune his inner circle through exile (Che Guevara) or execution (hundreds or thousands of previous loyalists).

The book gives example after example, and provides tons of detail about the tactics and strategy of maintaining power by ensuring that you have loyalists around you who aren’t too smart or too ambitious.

Suddenly Gulianni looks like the miracle appointment. Fallen from grace. Not attractive. Not a challenge to Trump in any way. And so far extremely loyal.


Anyway, I am taking one key thing from the book:

Trump, once again, isn’t failing at the game—he’s playing a completely different sport, right in front of us, and he’s winning. And all we’re doing is jabbering on about how he’s making this mistake or that one.

He’s not building a team of experts to run the country, because he’s going to run it himself. They’re there to defend him and keep him in power, as loyal servants. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s all him. It always has been. They’re just there for decoration and to tell him how cool he looks while he knocks heads together.

We’re basically all being outplayed…again. This doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t self-destruct due to bad moves in other areas, but hopefully at some point we’ll learn to stop underestimating his ability to read and manipulate people. He’s really, really good at it.


  1. I strongly recommend the book, which you can get here.
  2. Thanks to Steve Crapo for the recommendation.

Recommended for you…

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:: This Book I’m Reading Just Perfectly Explained Trump’s Cabinet Picks appeared originally on danielmiessler.com.

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19 hours ago
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Preventing 2017 America from becoming like 1934 Germany: A watchlist

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In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has an excellent piece pointing out the true threats to U.S. democracy, which transcend partisan concerns. As patriotic Americans, can we recognize these threats, separately from policy outcomes we like or dislike? What bright-line events would be difficult to remedy by sitting passively until the next election?

He advises that policy concerns are simply normal politics:

Many programs and policies with which progressive-minded people passionately disagree will be put forward over the next few years. However much or strongly one opposes them, they are, like it or not, the actual agreed-on platform of a dominant national party….One may oppose these things—and one should, passionately and permanently—but they are in no sense illegitimate….They are also reversible by the same laws and rules and norms and judicial and, perhaps most of all, electoral processes that created them. If we want gun control, we need to get more people caring about it and more people in more places voting for it; we cannot complain because people who don’t want gun control don’t give it to us.

But, he continues, threats to American institutions are more serious.

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

These possibilities are reminiscent of my previous note, What Actions Are Shared To All Fascist Movements? I’ve been wondering what would be likely, bright-line indicators that institutions are collapsing. The depredations will be hard to keep up with, but it might be good to have a checklist before the inauguration.

  1. Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition (this already happened, but is worth a re-mention).
  2. Detention of journalists.
  3. Loss of press access to the White House.
  4. Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government.
  5. Use of governmental power to target individual citizens for retribution.
  6. Use of a terrorist incident or an international incident to take away civil liberties.
  7. Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the Administration or its supporters.

Some are listed by Gopnik. Can you think of more?

Gopnik says it is time for the political left and right to make common cause:

So we need to stiffen our spines and broaden our embrace, grasp tightly but reach out far. The conservatives who see Trump for what he is and are shocked by it—and there are many, though not as many as there should be—should be welcomed….The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. We must learn and relearn that age’s necessary lessons: that meek submission is the most short-sighted of policies; that waiting for the other, more vulnerable group to protest first will only increase the isolation of us all. We must refuse to think that if we play nice and don’t make trouble, our group won’t be harmed. Calm but consistent opposition shared by a broad front of committed and constitutionally-minded protesters—it’s easy to say, fiendishly hard to do, and necessary to accomplish if we are to save the beautiful music of American democracy.”

The right sidebar contains useful links that may help you in this regard.

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10 hours ago
Wasn't gun control a plank of the national socialist party of Germany in the 1930's?
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19 hours ago
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1 public comment
1 hour ago
Actually pretty much the opposite. Gun control laws were much stricter under the Weimar Republic, Hitler and co actually made owning a gun easier as time went on (so long as you weren't an "unreliable" person - i.e., Jewish)
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adimals: vrala: a d&d campaign where everyone is a bard and you’re a punk rock band TRYING to...

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a d&d campaign where everyone is a bard and you’re a punk rock band TRYING to go on tour but all these villages are just so fucked up

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2 days ago
This is an NPC group in my campaign, it's awesome.
2 days ago
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Maybe Somebody Will Listen To Atrios

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This has always been my point. The self-driving cars will get to 90% or 95% or 99% or eve 99.9% but that isn't good enough to be the self-driving cars of the imagination.

The implication is clear. The self-driving challenge doesn’t relate as much to getting cars to operate in self-driving mode at least 99 per cent of a time, it relates to producing the tech at economically affordable rates whilst also cracking the critical 1 per cent manual requirement threshold.

And safety as usually conceived isn't really the issue. If they "work" then they'll be safe enough, almost tautologically. But they won't work.

How did I arrive at this crazy conclusion? While my experience isn't the universal one, I imagined the simple task of ordering up a self-driving taxi to my house and having it take me to the airport. I punch in my address and destination on my app, after pre-clearing this use of my funds with the local welfare authority, perhaps by running an extra couple of hours on the treadmill, and wait for it.

The car hits my street, a one way street with parking on both sides. I live half way down the block. There probably isn't a parking spot outside my house, though perhaps there is elsewhere on the block. Does the car pull into a spot further away, pull into a nearby illegal spot (too close to stop sign, in front of a fire hydrant, in front of one of the curb cuts people have) like most humans would do temporarily (whether they should or not), or just pause in the middle of the street while other cars start lining up behind it, waiting for me to get my ass out the door with my suitcases. How long does it wait for me? How many cars are stuck behind it before it pulls around the block and tries again? Also, who throws my heavy suitcases in the trunk after carrying them down the steps of my stoop? OK, I can do it. Who throws grandma's heavy suitcases in the trunk?

The trip to the airport requires driving down a major arterial that was once the path of a freight rail line. It's 4 lanes, roughly, but there are lots of light industrial and wholesalers along the route. Double and triple parking for deliveries is common. Constant lane changes are necessary. It's a horrible street to drive on on. There are bus stops, too, with the bus drivers having to navigate all of this. Lanes aren't exactly clearly marked.

Skip to the end of this boring story for the airport dropoff. Have any of you ever done an airport dropoff? Vehicles pulling in and out constantly 2 and even 3 cars deep in places by the curb? Gotta get those suitcases out of the trunk...

Anyway, there are places where this stuff isn't that hard. There are ways I can imagine automated long haul trucking working, and that is something to think about. But the snap my fingers and be whisked away anywhere I want to go vision? Not going to happen.
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1 day ago
Hey, maybe if there are self-driving cars, this whole idea of providing free property storage space (AKA parking) on public roadways will go away? And then all curbs will be available for loading most of the time?
3 days ago
I really don't understand this. What does a cab driver do? It'll do that.
3 days ago
That is true. And it also comes down to how we as a society modify our built environment to allow for self-driving cars. If we do nothing and expect the computers to do all the work, then it will be a really hard problem. But if we modify our built environment to meet them halfway, then it could work great. Imagine a new kind of bus stop with one every block or two in an area that has automated vehicles that can move you from any one to any other. Suddenly the loading/unloading issue is not as much of a problem because the car will pull into the bus stop. At the airport, there will be a self-driving dropoff terminal which is different than the normal one. Just like there is already a cab/bus dropoff. There might be self-driving lanes or roads like there are bike paths today. If you have the right infrastructure, then everything becomes simpler. If we don't do these things, I can see self-driving cars never really happening. Just as automobiles themselves would not have become so big if we hadn't built the interstate and proper roadways for them.
3 days ago
Yeah, I mean, knowledgeable people have made good arguments that autonomous vehicles won't freely navigate mixed-use urban areas for a couple of decades yet. So expect plenty of Atrios victory laps if 2026 city streets look a lot like 2016 city streets. But his gaming out of the problem is so maddeningly narrow. Look at any human system in detail and it's easy to heap one naive Atrios gotcha on top of another – "how would a robot emulate THIS improvised human move? And what if THIS happens followed by THAT?" – as if automating something must mean turning it into a brittle tower of nested if-then statements with no means of adapting to failure, and as if the decision structures today's operators rely on are inseparable from the jobs people hire these systems to do. You'd think the steady stream of dead bodies currently demanded by car transport would shake a person out of that mental trap, but no.
3 days ago
Yes. The most successful 'robots' are the ones that don't even try to do it the 'human' way. An ATM works because it bypassed all the hard problems (asking a human what they want, intelligibly understanding the response, checking their drivers license to verify identity, pulling money out of a drawer, etc.). Instead it works because somebody thought about the problem and how to solve it with computers rather than trying to emulate the human system it replaced. It is frankly amazing that autonomous cars operate as well as they do considering how hostile their environment is. If we make the environment just a little more friendly, it could really work.
3 days ago
I just love the assumption that cabs needing to park or cars being double parked are novel observations that surely none of the teams working on this have thought of.
3 days ago
Hahaha. Never mind whether machines can adapt, the way Atrios tells it you'd think people and goods don't move around cities without hired help attending to every step. Just blocks and blocks of people lying on sidewalks overwhelmed by the conflicting signals of urban space and cars idling in the wrong lanes and abandoned luggage everywhere and an infomercial voice going "there's GOT to be a better way!"
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how much money do you make?

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It’s hard to get real-world information about  what jobs pay, especially tailored to a particular industry or geographic region. Online salary websites are often inaccurate, and people get weird when you ask them directly.

Two years ago, in an effort to take some of the mystery out of salaries, I ran a post asking people to share how much money they make, their job, and their geographic region. It ended up being one of the most popular posts on the site, so let’s do an updated version.

If you’re willing to play, here are the rules:

1. Put your job title in the “user name” field, which will make it appear in bold, which will be easier for people to scan.

2. List the following info:

  • your job (the more descriptive the better, since job titles don’t always explain level of responsibility or scope of work)
  • your geographic area
  • your years of experience
  • your salary
  • anything else pertinent to put that number in context

(And assuming you want to be anonymous, don’t put your email address in the email field if you don’t want it linked to your Gravatar, if you have one.)

Obviously, no snarking on anyone’s salary, because that is rude.

how much money do you make? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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3 days ago
Jesus christ that's a lot of comments.
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Should Rumors Like The Trump Dossier Be News?

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In this week’s politics chat, we debate the journalistic ethics and political implications of Buzzfeed’s decision to publish a memo full of unsubstantiated allegations against President-elect Donald Trump. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone. It’s been an unreal week in the political world. We’ve got the confirmation hearings, President Obama’s farewell address and Donald Trump’s first press conference in months. Then, amid all this, news broke about a “secret” dossier that the Russians supposedly compiled about Trump. Then Buzzfeed published the documents. So we’re going to talk about this dossier and how it’s been handled, but first: Nate, can you give us the top line of what happened here — what we know and don’t know?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): There’s a 35-page document, attributed to a “person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official,” which makes various accusations about Trump, ranging from a kinky sexual episode (which is said to have provided Russia with “kompromat,” or compromising information that might be used for blackmail) to various quid pro quos between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

The document, or previous versions of it, has been circulating in journalistic and political circles since at least October. Buzzfeed published the whole thing on Monday, when other news organizations had mostly referred to it only in a circumspect way. And lots of people are pissed at Buzzfeed for doing this, and Trump spent a lot of time bashing Buzzfeed and CNN (which also reported on the documents fairly extensively) in his press conference.

micah: So let’s start with the fundamental question: Should Buzzfeed have published the memo in full? Would we have published this? (I should say, at the outset, that there are a lot of FiveThirtyEighters who aren’t in this chat who also have strong opinions about this and would have a say on whether to publish, so this is not a perfect representation of what our internal deliberations would look like.)

natesilver: Well, I’ll ignore for a moment that this isn’t really a story in FiveThirtyEight’s expertise, which obviously is a reason that we’d lean against publishing a story on this at all. Suppose the memo was on a subject where we felt like we had a lot of in-house expertise? The answer is that … we’d have had a huge fight about it. Parts of which we will simulate for you, dear reader, right now.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Under the circumstances — a number of unverifiable and not-yet-verified allegations in a document rife with errors — no, I don’t think Buzzfeed should have published.

I think it’s journalistic malpractice to have done so.

And I say that not because I think the American public can’t decide things for themselves (Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith reasoned that by publishing the full document, the site allowed readers to evaluate it themselves) but because part of the responsibility of journalists is to act as a filter for people to help them discern what is real and what is not. And I think that this story has done the industry a huge disservice at a time when it can’t afford to keep losing the public’s trust.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): There are reasons to publish and reasons not to publish, but I don’t think the idea that we should just let people decide for themselves is a reason to publish. That’s what Wikileaks does. That’s not a news organization. That’s a clearinghouse of information that is either real or fake. And while it could be argued that journalists aren’t very good at figuring out what is good or bad information, I think it’s something quite different when you have a news organization essentially saying at the top that some of this stuff is fake.

micah: OK, Nate, give us the pro-publishing argument. I think you lean more in that direction, right?

natesilver: I’m not sure i’m pro-publishing, no. But what I’d say is this: If you’re going to write about the document at all, I think there’s a strong case for publishing the document. We probably wouldn’t have written about the document at all if the sourcing was so sketchy.

clare.malone: Well, Nate, I think you can write about the allegations in the document effectively while not exposing yourself to being caught up in propagating some untruths. CNN did that with their report on it.

natesilver: I’m just more cynical than you about how effective reporters are at doing that sort of thing.

clare.malone: We’re already seeing claims made in the documents being debunked, yet Twitter has glommed on to this golden shower thing, and I think that’s likely to be most people’s takeaway from all this. And I find that unfortunate, especially if it’s unverifiable. The top-line takeaways are being undercut, I think.

natesilver: I agree that the, uh, golden shower stuff in some ways does Trump a favor, because who the hell cares about that, really?

I’m just a lot closer to Buzzfeed’s paradigm where I distrust the idea of the media as gatekeepers.

micah: I think I’m against publishing, but something about the idea that this was widely circulating among the media and political elite but wasn’t available to the public does bother me. At the same time, I don’t buy the argument that that wide circulation made this newsworthy. Slate’s Will Oremus had a good summary of the problem here:

It [publishing] happened via a series of steps by various actors, each of whom relied on the actions of those before them to justify their own decisions. BuzzFeed presumably published it in part because CNN was reporting on it. CNN was reporting on it because intelligence officials had briefed Trump on it. Intelligence officials briefed Trump on it because senior congressional leaders were passing it around. Senior congressional leaders may have been passing it around in part because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid alluded to it in a letter blasting FBI Director James Comey for publicizing information harmful to Hillary Clinton but not publicizing the dirt on Trump. Each act lowered the bar for those who followed to act on information that they knew might or might not be true.

clare.malone: I don’t think of media as gatekeepers so much as watchdogs for truth, Nate. That’s a real difference.

harry: The question is: Where does Buzzfeed end and Wikileaks begin? Well, that’s the question for me, anyway.

clare.malone: Gatekeeping implies some sort of power conspiracy in Washington that just wanted to keep this gossip for themselves, but that wasn’t the concern for news organizations — the concern was the report contained a lot of on-the-face-of-it errors, a lot of things that made them suspect, and a source that had a serious bias.

natesilver: I don’t think the comparison between Buzzfeed and Wikileaks makes sense.

With Wikileaks, there wasn’t really much question about the veracity of the information. The ethical issue was about how it was obtained.

harry: I meant it more in terms of just publishing stuff that isn’t exactly verifiable.

natesilver: I compare it more to how the media handled the Comey letter. Very unclear what it was all about. And yet it was treated as obviously bad news for Hillary Clinton and a huge game-changer. And it turned out to be a nothingburger. That was a massive, massive journalistic failure.

micah: How is this similar to that, though? I’m not seeing it.

harry: Of course, that was an actual letter from someone who was known.

clare.malone: Well, in the case of the Comey letter, there had been a previous investigation into Clinton by the FBI, so there was actually something for people to follow off of to make deductions that it wasn’t the best thing for Clinton. Not the best comparison, in my book.

natesilver: Meaning, the campaign press was happy to speculate based on incomplete information in the case of the Comey letter, without really having done any reporting on the story.

clare.malone: We’ve got one British intelligence agent who is our source in this story. No one knows him from Adam. Comey was the head of a federal agency.

micah: But with the Trump dossier, they had done a ton of reporting and not been able to verify any of the claims in the documents. That fact — that multiple media organizations and intelligence agencies have had this for a while and not been able to verify any of it — is super important in my book.

clare.malone: The dossier was published by Buzzfeed essentially, they said, because it had been the subject of Washington chatter and they thought Americans should be able to chatter about it too. But we aren’t British biddies gossipping in a village market — “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” isn’t a good enough reason to publish something like this in the way that they did.

natesilver: Right, so you maybe shouldn’t publish anything on it at all? I’m just saying. I don’t necessarily want CNN’s filtered version of the story. And I don’t like the idea of gossip that’s circulated very widely in media circles being withheld from the public out of some sense of propriety. When in so many other cases — like the Comey letter — the press is abundantly happy to gossip in public.

clare.malone: So CNN was basically laying out for people the thing that purportedly intelligence services had told Trump in a meeting.

micah: Although there’s some question about whether they did tell Trump about this now.

Backing up a second for a moment: The dossier might have been part of the intelligence briefing not because intelligence agencies believed the allegations. Their point might have been to show that Russia was tilting toward Trump, and the proof was that Russia had dirt on both campaigns but only released stuff about Clinton. From the intelligence community’s point of view, it didn’t matter if the allegations in the dossier were true; they had a different point to make. And that’s something journalists should write about. And journalists can do that without publishing the dossier itself. They can say that it’s a bunch of unverified salacious gossip that may well have been made up by a rogue agent — but that ultimately, Russia did nothing with it. (And the FBI didn’t do much, either.)

clare.malone: Press people gossip, yes. But they don’t publish their gossip all the time for good reason. Human beings, especially reporters, want salacious things to happen — that’s just the way it is. But better angels and journalistic ethics advise us to carefully comb through things three times before we go to press.

Journalism isn’t gossip on glossy pages or newsprint. At least it shouldn’t be. I know my esteemed former Gawker friends would insert some arguments here. But I stand by my old-fashioned sanctimony.

natesilver: You’re describing a world where political journalism is a lot more truth-driven than it is in practice. Political journalism is incredibly political, and the reason that stories get published or not published or framed in a certain way often has a lot more to do with appearances than the underlying veracity of the claims.

micah: But Nate, that’s not reason to just throw up our hands and say, “Well, let’s just publish everything.” I’d rather us say, “Let’s do a better job of filtering and framing.”

natesilver: I just think some of the sanctimony about what Buzzfeed did is hypocritical.

harry: Would you have published it?

micah: The more I think about this, the more publishing the document seems like a fundamental abdication of journalistic duty — to put it in really obnoxious terms. We, for example, would never publish a data set and say, “We’re not sure if this is right, but have at it!”

clare.malone: Right.

natesilver: But what if lots of news organizations were publishing snippets of the database? And characterizing the database? And maybe even mischaracterizing it?

micah: That doesn’t persuade me at all. So what? We would write about them mischaracterizing and misusing it. Does publishing the full data set add truth into the world? No.

natesilver: It possibly adds to truth relative to publishing parts of the database.

clare.malone: Basically, so far, what your argument seems to be to me, Nate, is that we have journalists with bad standards and … we should realize that and get past our demand that journalism be better?

I’m missing the philosophical argument here about our role as journalists. And I want to hear the baseline opposing view!

natesilver: I think our role as journalists is to discover the truth.

clare.malone: OK. I agree.

micah: Should we ask our colleague Kyle Wagner (erstwhile Deadspin editor) to make the opposing argument?

kyle has joined the chat

clare.malone: Glad to have Kyle, but also want to hear Nate’s say.

natesilver: I guess something just feels wrong to me about the idea that dozens of reporters have seen this document, but that the general public can’t be trusted with it.

clare.malone: Because it might be untrue. That’s the reason. And news organizations publishing what might be internet rumor or Kremlin misinformation is really problematic.

What was there to report is that this was presented to Trump by intelligence agencies as something that was being peddled — rumors of Trump having close, possibly illegal ties to Russia. But they weren’t sure of that info either.

harry: Clare is a lot more convincing to me, I’ll tell ya.

clare.malone: When you put a document out there, unfiltered, as a news org, you’re lending your imprimatur to it.

micah: That’s the thing: In an ideal world, a reader visits nytimes.com or fivethirtyeight.com or buzzfeed.com and starts with the premise that everything they’re reading is true. Publishing this memo hurts that cause. If you want to live in a world where the media leans much more heavily toward publishing everything and then the media and the public engage in some type of Socratic effort to move everyone toward the truth, that’s defensible, but I just can’t imagine how that would work.

clare.malone: By publishing, you’re saying, implicitly at the very least, that you think there is substance to this.

natesilver: My stance is that then you shouldn’t touch the subject at all. I don’t like when reporters try to make superfine distinctions about how to characterize the dossier. If none of it is verifiable, don’t even go near it.

I’ve spent almost 10 years covering how the political press reports on polling data, and I’d say nuance isn’t really a strength.

micah: That’s 100 percent true.

clare.malone: But then we have to make it better, right? There are nuanced reporters. We should be encouraging that, not throwing up our hands and saying, “Nothing to be done here, they’re all fools.”

kyle: I can see the argument for not running the story at all — though I’d disagree with it — but once the CNN report was out there, the document itself was the story. The absurdity of the claims and the shaggy provenance of the report are crucial parts of that story. CNN tried to run the making-the-sausage story, but they left out the pieces that made it such a complex mess.

micah: So Kyle, your argument is to write a story about how there’s this shady/unsubstantiated memo rocketing around? Does that require publishing the memo?

clare.malone: You can publish a story about it and say that the claims haven’t been verified. It’s pretty simple. And that’s the reason why you’re not pubbing the claims.

And your language about the report is more vague, sure, but that seems responsible.

I would note here that I am the daughter of a lawyer and I feel that particularly in the internet age, people seem to feel free to lob around accusations and take a “guilty until proven innocent” stance on things that I’m fundamentally uncomfortable with.

kyle: If you’re going to do the story, I don’t see how you don’t run the memo. Lots of places chose not to run the story! CNN ran the story about this mysterious document that left readers with big, obvious questions that CNN had the answers to, but it didn’t share them.

micah: What questions?

kyle: “What are these claims that are so salacious that they’re eyes-only for the Gang of Eight and found their way to John McCain’s desk and are still being passed around to Trump and Obama?”

natesilver: To some extent, this is a question of defaults. I think Buzzfeed’s default is “the public has a right to this information as much as we do.” And I think I mostly agree with that.

micah: Margaret Sullivan captured your point about defaults succinctly:

Smith said he did so because his, and BuzzFeed’s preference and philosophy is, essentially, “When in doubt, publish.” But at many other news organizations, the rule is caution: “When in doubt, leave it out.”

harry: The more I think about this the less I wonder if this should have been published. I am not sure if any of this is true.

kyle: Micah didn’t ask me, but referring to the claims without actually stating them is no different from The New York Times refusing to publish the word “fuck” when a public figure says “fuck.” You’re leaving the reader with a needlessly incomplete accounting of facts.

clare.malone: I will accede that there is a fair amount of political journalism that falls into a certain penumbra — there is politicking between political figures and agencies and bodies. So there is reporting that gives the broad outlines of strategic thinking and back-and-forths. The idea that intelligence agencies are worried about ties to Russia and the president-elect are important ones to note to the American people, especially given previous reporting. You could characterize the intelligence community presenting Trump with allegations that he had made “inappropriate contact” with Russian intelligence agencies but say that the claims were still being investigated or some such.

We’re trying to help people synthesize and understand the world, and part of that synthesis is eliminating the hooey.

micah: So let’s talk briefly about the fallout from all this before we wrap. First, the relationship between Trump and the press seems to have reached a new low (and it was already really bad) just as Trump is about to take office. He bashed the hell out of the press in that news conference. And that CNN reporter pushed back pretty hard.

That terrible relationship seems like not a good thing, but it helps Trump in his crusade against the media, right?

natesilver: Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think the politics of this are quite helpful for Trump.

clare.malone: Oh yeah.

natesilver: It was nicely timed from his perspective, in terms of letting him claim the moral high ground in the press conference.

harry: Well, hold on a second. I don’t think this loses him a single supporter. But I’m not sure it helps him gain one either.

clare.malone: I dunno, Harry.

kyle: To steal a phrase from a former boss, I think this serves as a literal vaccination against future stories or claims with anything but the most undeniable proof.

micah: Yeah, I think that’s right — at least with his supporters.

harry: Why would it help him? (In terms of polling, anyway.)

micah: Won’t some swing voters who aren’t reflexively anti-media look at the facts here and side with Trump?

clare.malone: Yeah, and I think, Kyle, that that sort of nuclear logic is not quite right or … logical.

natesilver: It also distracts from Trump’s conflicts of interest, which was the ostensible subject of the press conference.

harry: That’s a different tack.

clare.malone: I mean, forget gaining supporters, it’s eroding trust in the institution of the press — that has cascading effects.

harry: I could see that happening, where it distracts us from things that could hurt Trump.

natesilver: I don’t know. I’m not thinking about his approval ratings or anything like that, though. I’m thinking about the extent to which the dossier and how it was reported will make the press more fearful or fearless about covering Trump in the future.

I thought one of the brilliant things Trump did was to praise the news organizations who didn’t publish the memo. Give them a little treat for being obedient.

clare.malone: Jesus, you are cynical.

micah: I’m not sure reporters will see that as a reward.

kyle: Reporters, maybe not, but publishers?

micah: Publishers, yeah. Good point.

harry: These are arguments I’m more open to. And questions that I cannot answer. We still haven’t heard the last about this report, I don’t think.

micah: But if next week, some media outlet has some other magical dossier, and let’s say they’re 90 percent confident in the claims contained therein, do they publish? Aren’t they less likely to publish now? And at 90 percent or 95 percent, don’t we want them to publish?

clare.malone: These things are case-by-case calls. There’s no way that we can sit here and make that call for people.

natesilver: This sort of gets back to the conversation about defaults.

micah: No, I know, but I’m just saying they’re less likely to publish now. Given all the blowback against Buzzfeed.

clare.malone: Are they?

harry: Most news organizations wouldn’t have done what Buzzfeed did. We know that because they didn’t.

clare.malone: I don’t know. It would make me hungrier to publish something that I felt confident I had reported out. And take the inevitable spitball from Trump as a mark of honor. I’m going to stand up for reporters here!

As long as your mother or your dog loves you, you shouldn’t worry about who you offend, right? As long as it’s verifiable and the truth.

micah: Yeah, I think most reporters would love to be attacked by Trump, actually.

harry: If you want someone to love you and you’re in the media, get a dog.

micah: My dog loves me:


natesilver: Do these principles need to be in conflict, though? Suppose I believe both of the following: 1. reporters ought to make a lot of effort to determine the veracity of what they write, and 2. there shouldn’t be that much of a distinction between reporters and citizens, and we should generally avoid reporters knowing things that citizens don’t know.

micah: But those are in direct conflict, Nate.

natesilver: Really? What if you reported out a very in-depth story about the dossier that tried to sort through the claims as best it could but then also published the dossier to show your source material.

kyle: Take a dumb sports analogy: If a general manager was trying to tank a player’s trade value with ridiculous claims, the decision to publish isn’t based on whether or not those claims are true, it’s based on the fact that this is a thing that someone is trying to sell to other GMs. And, of course, you include what the ridiculous claim is, because that’s the reason it is a story.

micah: Hmmm … that’s actually somewhat persuasive, Kyle.

clare.malone: But there is training that reporters go through, Nate. Knowing who to call for comment, knowing your responsibilities for reaching out to such and such.

Citizen bloggers or whatever don’t have that same background most of the time. I’m not disputing the idea that reporters should fill citizens in on pretty much what they know — that’s our job — but if a reporter is genuinely unsure of something, I think it’s prudent to hold back until you know more and can more fully educate the public.

natesilver: At FiveThirtyEight, we quite often say, “Here’s what’s going on the best that we can figure out, but if you don’t trust us, go download the data yourself.”

micah: But the data isn’t in question there, Nate, the conclusions that should be drawn from it are.

Think about all the reporting that goes into a typical story. Think about all the calls you make and all the B.S. that gets fed to you — that should be left out.

natesilver: So, would you have a problem if a news organization started to run a transcript of every interview they conducted?

micah: Yes.

Generally, we want there to be a really high signal-to-noise ratio in American media. That would add a ton of noise.

harry: (I, for one, wouldn’t read those transcripts.)

natesilver: Having had my views misquoted and mischaracterized so many times, I’d be way in favor of news organizations often publishing transcripts.

micah: But that’s an argument for better filtering, not for no filtering.

natesilver: It’s also an argument for recognizing our human limitations as filters.

And that journalists have a lot of incentives that compete with truth-seeking, in terms of making them better filters.

clare.malone: Ton of noise, I agree. But technically, if the conversation was on the record, sure, run the transcript. What’s important with quotes is always context. Context problems are mostly what pols/public figures/Nate Silver complain about when being misquoted or misconstrued, right?

micah: Sure. I’ve been at FiveThirtyEight for six years now and been around for several separate flurries of stories about us, and I’d say probably only 10 to 20 percent are fundamentally accurate. But I don’t think those writers publishing transcripts of all their interviews would help.

micah: OK, we gotta wrap. Closing thoughts?

clare.malone: Well, now I’m worried Nate’s gonna fire me and hire a 13-year-old citizen blogger.

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3 days ago
On the main I think Clare Malone and Micah Cohen win this exchange. Despite Nate Silver's inclination to push journalists to show their work, I doubt 538 would release a badly compromised data set in the way Buzzfeed dropped this dossier. It also wouldn't do the CNN equivalent of writing up an opaque analysis of data it withheld, but that feeds into the same point. Don't publish crap.
3 days ago
You should be Clare, you should be.
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