News awareness means not just knowing what’s in the news, but who wanted you to know it

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Sen. Ted Cruz built his reputation as a conservative flamethrower after leading the government shutdown over Obamacare funding in 2013, cultivating that brand during his presidential campaign and beyond over the last decade.

Now, the Texas Republican is seeking to show some bipartisan credentials as he runs for re-election in a state that is becoming more competitive and gave him a scare in his last race.

That “and beyond” is doing a lot of work here, reducing Cruz’s far more recent works of extremism to yada-yada status. One of the things being yada’d out is Cruz’s role in the aforementioned Jan. 6 attempt to nullify the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Cruz was the leader of Senate Republican objections to the state electoral totals, pushing false claims of fraud in “disputed states” even after courts nationwide rejected those claims as evidenceless hoaxes.

Those hoaxes further led directly to an attempted toppling of the United States government, one that had Cruz cowering in a broom closet as rioters advanced. Still, Cruz persisted with those same false claims immediately after the violent crowd was pushed out and Congress was able to reconvene.

To be clear, Cruz is not a firebrand whose fire was expended in 2013 or after a failed presidential bid. Cruz is one of the two sitting Republican senators who still sought to promote hoax-based conspiracy theories discrediting the 2020 United States presidential elections mere hours after those conspiracy theories had threatened the lives of his colleagues. His recent actions were reckless, not fiery, and the man would likely not still hold his Senate seat if the Republican Party was not itself both the source and the backer of the coup-backing hoaxes. A better nation would likely have tossed him from office.

That pivotal role in an attempted political coup is in fact mentioned nowhere in the piece. It is considered less significant than a Cruz-pushed government shutdown a decade ago, and goes without mention despite his failed 2016 presidential bid making the cut. This is an extremely notable omission given the very premise of the piece, which is that he now “seeks to burnish a bipartisan image.”

Next, we are informed that said burnishing is happening because Cruz won his last election bid by an uncomfortably small margin. In Texas. (Republican Sen. John Cornyn won two years later in 2020 by a comfortable 10 points, same as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last year.)

So how do we know, as journalists and as readers of journalism, that he is “seeking” to show bipartisanship? What is the evidence for this claim? It’s our next paragraph.

In a wide-ranging interview in his Capitol Hill office, Cruz 

All right, stop. Pause it right there.

We now know how the story came to be. One or both of the reporters were invited to a “wide-ranging interview” held in Sen. Ted Cruz’s own Capitol Hill office, and that’s where Cruz told the reporters what he was “seeking.”

This article is an access piece. It is literally an access piece. Cruz agreed to or even initiated an interview in his own office; the range of topics was whatever Ted Cruz would agree to discuss. We know, for a fact, that there were topics Cruz would not agree to discuss, and we know that because the reporters use one of those refusals to close out their piece.

Asked if he believes DeSantis would make a good president, Cruz grinned.

“Good try,” the usually loquacious senator said. “I think the voters will make that determination.”

The reporters found a no-go topic and were shut down, and it was considered a moment with enough color to finish off the piece on a gauzy, soft-focus note.

So it’s not that the reporters dug into Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent votes and actions and discovered, for themselves, threads of bipartisanship that others might not have noticed. Ted Cruz summoned them to a scheduled appointment and told them about his supposed bipartisanship.

Cruz highlighted his work as the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and how he’s teamed with Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on legislation requiring that consumers be informed if their refrigerator or other home appliances have recording capabilities.

Cruz highlighted. This is just a press release with a bit of dressing-up.

To the reporters’ credit, none of this is obfuscated. We’re given the foundation for the piece in the third paragraph, rather than buried further in. The headline and the premise of the piece are both scrupulously written as an accurate depiction of what’s going on, even if a casual reader might infer information that isn’t being said. The headline is that Cruz seeks a bipartisan image, not that he has one. The core claim, paragraph two, again describes him as “seeking” it, not as having it.

So the actual news here is that Cruz, a hoax-fluffing ally to those that sought to overthrow our democracy, is now pitching journalists the notion that he is actually bipartisan, which is a premise so thin that Ted Cruz and his aides had to assemble the supposed evidence themselves and spoon-feed it to journalists in order to make the piece happen at all.

From here, the summoned reporters had three choices.

They could write off the interview as a journalistic loss. The reporter or reporters summoned for this experience could return to their assignment desk and report that the interview was a complete washout, not so much an interview as an extended session of Ted Cruz pitching his own fan fiction.

But the home office might not be thrilled to hear that the “wide-ranging” interview with a sitting senator ended up being a waste of everybody’s time. Journalism has been cut to the bone in every newsroom; spending money and hours chasing a story with nothing to show for it is perhaps a more dire situation than might’ve been the case a decade or two back.

Option two could’ve reported Cruz’s bipartisanship nonsense, but offset the claims with enough counterexamples to suggest to readers that Cruz was full of it—even if current political journalism rules prevent reporters from plainly telling readers that politically important figures are probably snowing them.

Instead, they went with option three: stenography. The “related” links and video embeds on the story page get much closer to the real story. In one, Cruz mocks pandemic safety measures to a 2021 CPAC crowd despite 1 million American pandemic deaths; in the next, 2022 Ted Cruz expresses horror at a thin children’s book that he held up as a conspiratorial example of “critical race theory.” But the story itself? It was studiously credulous. Back to this earlier example:

Cruz highlighted his work as the top Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and how he’s teamed with Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on legislation requiring that consumers be informed if their refrigerator or other home appliances have recording capabilities.

This is a nothingburger. It is a bar set so low as to not exist. A one-off proposed bill that will require warning consumers who purchase refrigerators capable of spying on them does not amount to statesmanship. You could put the name of any sitting senator on this bill and it would be equally believable and relevant. It is the vanilla ice cream of bills.

At best we now know that Cruz is physically capable of interacting with other human beings inside the Capitol. That Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell continues to speak to him civilly and hasn’t beaten him with a gavel is actually a plausible news story. Neither of those things amount to an accomplishment on Cruz’s part.

Cruz touted his work with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on a bipartisan bill to fight a potential ban on new or existing gas stoves.

Sen. Joe Manchin is notorious for his boosterism of fossil fuels; he has bucked his party countless times in order to scuttle bills and provisions that would harm corporate producers of oil, coal, or gas. Partnering with Joe Manchin and only Joe Manchin to promote fossil fuel use is not what the word “bipartisan” means and there is no political reporter in the nation credulous enough to think so.

And he spoke of his unlikely partnerships with two other Senate Democrats on the Commerce committee — Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Raphael Warnock of Georgia — to help create new interstates that will boost trade and business in their states.

This is the only example given that is not trivially dismissible, and it amounts to what other news stories would call “pork.” Sen. Ted Cruz is willing to partner with individual senators in order to boost projects that would benefit, specifically, his own voters, which is both the absolute minimum expected by those voters and is generally considered tawdry among all the politicians and voters who do not benefit.

If Ted Cruz could not so much as get federal road money for his state, one of the easiest lifts in all of politics, he would bow out of reelection right now. It would be a fool’s errand. So once again, the evidence presented amounts to little more than “several other senators remain willing to return Ted Cruz’s calls.”

We go on to hear that “as Cruz sees it,” his ranking spot on the Senate Commerce Committee is “a boon” for his Texas constituents. This part is straight press release. You can almost hear the plink of the unspoken bullet points.

“I think campaigns should be about issues and substance and results,” Cruz said, sitting in his Russell Senate Building Office, where three of his bills that President Barack Obama signed into law hang on the wall. “The Commerce Committee has vast jurisdiction over nearly half the U.S. economy. Having the responsibility of being the ranking member for the Commerce Committee is enormously beneficial to Texas.”

“It gives me the ability to fight for 30 million Texans in a way that has real, meaningful impact,” he added.

Cruz’s campaign should be paying the reporters for these two paragraphs. Ted Cruz was able to not just suggest, but to curate the coverage to be generated from his interview: Would the reporters even have known that Cruz has three Barack Obama’s autographs framed on his wall if Cruz did not explicitly point them out?

And can we laugh at Cruz’s “I think campaigns should be about issues and substance and results,” when he spends his time railing against the “critical race theory” represented by an illustrated children’s book? This from the “firebrand” hoax promoter with a record of seizing on far-right conspiracy theories, with no particular regard for the stochastic terrorism they promote?

This is the book so terrifying Cruz believed a Supreme Court nominee needed to weigh in on during her confirmation hearings?

Next, the story ponders the campaign logic behind Cruz’s “bipartisanship” messaging. Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke came within a few points of Cruz in the 2018 Senate race; Cruz is facing an “unpredictable cycle that lands in an election year” and that requires him to make at least a passable push for the “swing voters” that soured on him the last time around; it’s going to be a “tricky balancing act” for Cruz to court those voters while simultaneously shoveling the far-right takes and conspiracies (“left-wing Soros prosecutor” is cited as one, with no note of the antisemitic, explicitly neo-Nazi origins of the “Soros” trope.)

There’s nothing in there that would not serve equally well as filler in a piece entitled “Ted Cruz indicted on child pornography charges” or “Ted Cruz cuts ribbon at new local mall.” This part is rote. Cruz is facing reelection; Cruz needs to convince swing voters to believe a set of rather dubious claims; here is Ted Cruz hand-delivering the claims he wants to most emphasize. The piece has at this point transformed fully into a campaign-trail piece before we’ve ever gotten to the campaign trail.

Then we get to the mandatory opponents say section, in which Democrats are seemingly randomly chosen to provide rebuttals to the claims presented in the first half of the piece.

Asked about Cruz’s bipartisan work on the refrigerator and appliance privacy bill, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, literally rolled his eyes.

Both sides are presented in opposition, of equal standing, with equal credibility, and without stakes. It does not matter if Ted Cruz is being sincere or is trying to game journalists into a bit of free campaign work; it would literally make no difference to the resulting story, and editors would rather chew their own limbs off than hint to readers that a politician might not be sincere.

A hallmark of political journalism is that it is self-contained. It tolerates no issue experts. Imagine an article on the possible poisoning of a city’s water supply written in that style. One powerful person would say the water is probably safe, their political opponents would counter that the water is probably not safe, and that would be it. Is the water actually drinkable? Who knows! That question is left unanswered because no neutral evaluation is allowed. Someone else could write the story that actually answered the darn question, but they would certainly not work anywhere near D.C.

Our piece closes out substantively with another bit of straight campaign analysis, this time linked up with the only political race that even political journalists can muster enthusiasm for:

Cruz’s prospects for re-election will depend in part on who his party’s presidential nominee is. The Republican victory margin in Texas has shrunk from 16 points in the 2012 presidential election to 9 points in 2016 to less than 6 points in 2020. Yet Cruz, the runner-up to Trump in the 2016 race, is resolute about staying agnostic in the 2024 primary.

So why was this piece written? In this case, the motive is blazingly easy to discern. Our reporters did the respectable thing and told us right up near the top that this is a story in which their subject, Cruz, summoned them to an in-office appointment and delivered the information he wanted conveyed, down to the specific wall decorations he wanted described as supporting evidence.

If the story instead referenced a senator responding to a question in a Capitol Hill hallway, you could likely infer the subject was waylaid and had little time to formulate a response. If the story included a quote from a public rally, the context would be the message the politician was delivering to the base (let’s see if Cruz utters the word “bipartisanship” at a public rally); if the story included a quote from a surreptitious recording of a private fundraising event, we’d get a better sense of what that politician thinks when surrounded by wealthy powerbrokers.

Quotes from a law enforcement officer who moonlights as spokesperson for a city’s police union are likely to be considerably different than quotes from a sheriff speaking at a press conference immediately following a major local crisis. One of the two is likely to be more accurate than the other; both may be riddled with subtext, conscious or unconscious, not shared by victims or witnesses. It’s quite possible that nobody is lying—and yet any story that quotes from only one of those sources will, inevitably, elevate the subtexts of the quoted above all of the others.

We’ll call it Critical News Theory, to use the terminology of the moment. A story might report an event with perfect accuracy and still be misleading. Biased, even. Even the existence of a story favors the point of view of its main character, and that is true whether it is an article about a senator preparing for a reelection bid, a prison interview with a condemned killer, or a story about a local child fined for an unlicensed lemonade stand.

In political coverage, though, you are adrift and at the mercy of the waves if you cannot scan a story and identify the motive behind the story’s existence. In any news article, you are the consumer; in a politically premised story, you are being sold products.

Some of the questions to be answered are obvious. A few are more subtle.

  • How did journalists obtain this news?
  • Who benefits from this news? Who is damaged?
  • Is the relationship between reporter and source adversarial, cooperative, or neutral?
  • Why would the source of this information want it to be made public?
  • Why would the journalists, editors, or media company believe it newsworthy?
  • What secondary information is the reported news meant to imply?
  • Are those implications being reinforced or diminished by the journalist’s own choices and voice?

In this particular example, we can think of a few more specific ones:

  • Why was the decision made to highlight Cruz’s first acts of partisanship instead of later, considerably more extreme acts?
  • Why, specifically, was the most consequential of Ted Cruz’s acts of partisanship—the promotion of falsehoods that contributed to both a violent insurrection and an unprecedented attempted autogolpe—completely omitted from the story?
  • Do those omissions intentionally or unintentionally present Cruz as a more moderate figure than would be conveyed by a fuller accounting? Are the omissions significant enough to qualify as misleading?
  • Why did the reporters consider Ted Cruz’s own advocacy of claimed bipartisan success newsworthy to begin with?
  • Is the very existence of the article misleading, in that it imbues borrowed journalistic authority to campaign claims that would otherwise be more recognizably biased and self-serving?

This isn’t an exercise in pedantry. We are in a time of increasingly brazen propaganda from political figures looking to discredit institutions they cannot otherwise control. Our democracy remains under attack from partisan hoaxes, all of them transparently fraudulent, meant to discredit elections themselves. The promotion of false information for political gain is now a dominant feature of our communications networks, both distributed (as in Facebook and Twitter) and corporatized (as in Fox News). It is a tool of war, used by Russia both to undermine Ukraine’s pro-western government and foment sectarian violence and, later, to present a barrage of false pretexts for the subsequent Russian invasion.

Identifying the reasons why a story might be being distributed is foundational to identifying fake news in an era awash with government-sanctioned hoaxes. But it’s also required for simply flipping through the pages of your preferred newspaper or scrolling through the homepage of a staid network’s internet site.

None of the stories write themselves. There was a spurring event for each of them: A press release that sounded interesting. A friend of a friend who noticed something out of the ordinary. A senator facing uncomfortable recent polling numbers that have him sweating for a chance to rebrand. None of it is necessarily malicious, but it’s your attention that’s being purchased. Not just by the advertisements, but by the people so freely giving the quotes.

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By dreamer_live

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