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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Media coverage of Trump is heavily biased ... in his favor

Stephen H. Provost

Thinking out loud ... or at my keyboard.

Postulated: Modern mainstream journalism is heavily biased in favor of Donald Trump, at least when it comes to the Mueller investigation. You read that right. The same journalists Trump accuses of being out to get him, the ones he calls purveyors of “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” are biased in his favor.

Balance beam

Journalists are funny creatures. I know. I used to be one. They obsess about being “fair and balanced” (a phrase that long predates its appropriation by Fox News as an Orwellian battle cry). They’ve been known to give equal time, or at least a mention, to such folks as anti-Obama “birthers” and climate change deniers.

These claims may be no more factual than those of flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers, but they’re given a voice because enough of them are shouting loudly enough to demand it. Not for the sake of facts, but for the sake of “balance.”

If enough people believe something false, does that alone make it worthy of coverage? Some in the media seem to think so. But it’s hard to cover a belief without lending it a degree of legitimacy, and that’s what journalists do when they repeat false claims. They’re worried that if they don’t, they might be accused of favoritism – especially when it comes to politics – so, they let virtually anyone with a loud enough voice have a platform.

That generally means people with R’s and D’s after their names. Independent voters are too, well, independent to offer any unified message, and third parties are too small.

Truth or consequences

All other things being equal (or close to it), the level of interest in a story should be a factor in whether it sees the light of day. When it becomes the overriding factor, however, there’s a problem. The Founding Fathers understood this when they devised a system founded on a statement of fundamental principles: the U.S. Constitution. Under this system, any movement that opposed those principles was deemed unlawful – regardless of how popular it was.

Similarly, the journalist’s unwritten constitution should put the truth ahead of popularity. Period. No matter how great the sacrifice in terms of ratings or subscriptions or advertising dollars.

When journalists decide popularity is more important than truth in deciding whether to report a story, they abandon their traditional role as gatekeeper. They throw open those invisible gates they’re supposed to be guarding to anyone and everyone, including marauders who want to destroy or plunder or conquer.

The result is chaos, and it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

Journalists are gatekeepers whether they like it or not. They have limited resources - space on their news pages, time on their newscasts, staff to report the news - so they must pick and choose what they cover. Some things will get covered and others won't. Journalists are the ones who decide; they're responsible.

When they abdicate this responsibility, giving con artists and conspiracy theorists a platform, they may try to debunk them – thereby compromising their own integrity. Suddenly, they’re not just reporting a story, they’re commenting on it. Are Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity reporters or advocates ... or entertainers? Even Hannity doesn’t seem to know: He’s argued at various times that he is and is not a journalist. If he doesn’t know the difference, how are viewers supposed to?

And how are journalists supposed to retain credibility when they seem more like attack dogs than reporters? In the eyes of viewers, they’ve sacrificed the very “balance” they sought to achieve in the first place.

More important, though, is that it’s a lot harder to confront marauding hordes inside the city gates than beyond them. The only negotiations likely to take place at that point will involve the terms of your surrender.

Actions, not words

Before I go further, I should point out a key distinction: Sometimes, the actions of people purveying falsehoods are worthy of coverage, even though their ideas aren’t. When 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in an attempt to somehow rendezvous with an imaginary spaceship, the tragedy was newsworthy. The spaceship wasn’t. These people believed so strongly in its existence that they were willing to die for it, but no one suggested that this viewpoint deserved to be considered as a rational possibility for the sake of “balanced coverage.”

Yet somehow, when politics become involved, all that changes. Modern politics transforms many in the media from champions of truth into scared puppies cowering under the table.

They tend to believe they must give the ideas of both sides relatively equal weight, even when one side is arguing for beliefs that have been disproved by science, rewrite history or fly in the face of the most basic common sense.

One-sided story

It’s bad enough if one side is telling the truth on a given issue, while the other side is lying. (In politics, neither side tells the truth all or even most of the time). But what if one side is making a series of false statements, and the other side isn’t saying anything at all?

This is exactly what’s happening in the Mueller investigation. Donald Trump and his legal team/PR machine are spewing out daily tweets, legal claims and proclamations, many of which are at odds with established facts and with one another. Sometimes, both.

Mainstream news outlets aren’t just covering them, they’re falling all over themselves to do so. They trot out a parade of “breaking news” items, significant and otherwise. Then, when there’s a lull, they call in any number of talking heads who proceed to analyze this stuff to death, exhume its remains and dissect it until there’s nothing left but dust and bones.

All the while, they’re referring back to the Trump team’s version of events, time and again. No matter how fanciful or self-contradictory that version may be, it will start to take hold if it’s repeated often enough. And it appears to have done just that: In July, 45 percent of those surveyed in a Washington Post poll disapproved of the way Mueller was handling the investigation, up from 31 percent at the start of the year.

This, in spite of the fact that, apart from several indictments, no one really knows what Mueller is doing. They only know what the Trump team tells them: that the inquiry is a “witch hunt” being conducted by a bunch of “angry Democrats” and that it’s “bad for the country.” All of this is either badly exaggerated or patently false. Even so, it’s dutifully reported in painstaking detail by Trump’s mouthpiece: the mainstream media he professes to hate.

Mueller, meanwhile, remains silent because that’s what a good prosecutor does.

Unhinged and unbalanced

The result is far worse even than what happens when media outlets give equal coverage to two sides – one factual and the other not. In this case, not only are journalists reporting falsehoods and dubious statements from a biased source, those statements are the only things they’re reporting. Because that source is the only one they’ve got. Trump’s team is the only side with direct involvement that’s providing any information, so their message, naturally, carries the day.

The media “solution” to this only makes matters worse. Cable news networks trot out talking heads to act as surrogates for what Mueller might be doing or considering. But it’s all just speculation, and speculation is no substitute for facts. Viewers know this and treat it as such.

When commentators try to balance the scales by casting themselves in adversarial roles, it’s even worse. It only fuels Trump’s narrative that the media are biased against him, even though almost all the news of substance they’re reporting originates in his own camp! He’s having his cake and eating it, too, all the while giving journalists heartburn.

How to restore balance

This leads me to the blunt conclusion journalists don’t want to face, and the thesis of this column: In order to achieve actual balance in this case, the media would have to stop reporting the Trump team’s side.

Should they, really? The news media are supposed to report the news, not withhold it. But if they’re so dedicated to achieving “balance” that they repeat phony claims such as birtherism and climate change denial, shouldn’t they refrain from covering one side when the other side doesn’t have a voice?

Especially when the side that’s talking has a history of contradictory, false and self-serving statements. And especially when national security is at stake. Let’s not forget the gravity of the accusations being made: that people close to or involved in the Trump campaign were complicit with wealthy, politically motivated Russians in helping to influence the outcome of a national election.

Our election, not theirs. Not an election to be decided at the pleasure of Vladimir Putin, who has openly admitted he wanted Trump to win. If he’d wanted Hillary Clinton to win, the episode would have been just as repugnant. No more, no less. Putin’s actions are an insult and an act of violence against the heart of a democratic republic, against the Constitution, against the nation and against each of us as U.S. citizens.

Journalists’ responsibility

Journalists must take their role as gatekeeper seriously if they are to avoid being suckered into becoming a propaganda mouthpiece for Donald J. Trump. That’s where they’re headed, if they aren’t already there.

But as much as many in the media may loathe Trump personally, there’s a reason they won’t pull themselves back from the brink. They might tell you it has to do with journalistic ethics or integrity, but there’s something else in play here: ratings, subscriptions and revenues.

Bottom line: Trump’s story sells newspapers and lifts ratings, which, in turn, woos advertisers. This is ultimately why mainstream media outlets will go right on telling it. Right on serving as his mouthpiece. Because to them, popularity really is more important than truth.

Popularity equals ratings equals profit. Trump and the media both know this. They’re on the same page, so is it really any surprise that media companies do Trump’s bidding? When it comes right down to it, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Stephen H. Provost is an author, former journalist, historian and media critic. His book Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump examines the toxic relationship between journalism and Donald Trump, focusing on the media’s transformation from impartial observer to ringside commentator and sometimes-combatant in the 21st century culture wars.

Money grabs and pretty faces: 10 ways to spot a bogus Facebook profile

Stephen H. Provost

It’s a minefield out there on social media, and the spammers, bots and trolls are continually laying down new mines in new locations that are liable to explode on you if you aren’t careful.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot more bogus friend requests on Facebook. When I started out, I used to accept most requests that came my way, but lately, I’ve been getting an increasing number of suspicious or outright phony invitations.

So, I’ve learned to become more discriminating (in the positive sense of the word). These days, I reject close to half of the friend requests I receive.

It’s nothing personal, it pays to be but as I’m getting closer to 3,000 friends, and I’m sure not all of them are trolls. But it’s hard to keep track of so many people on a Facebook feed. As an author, I want to connect with readers and potential readers, but I don’t want my feed to be dominated by faces I wouldn’t recognize if I bumped into them at the local grocery store or names that look like random excerpts from a phonebook.

In identifying unwanted friend requests, I’ve noticed a few patterns, tipoffs, and things I’d just rather avoid. It’s not a foolproof filter, but it does cut down on the headaches of curating my social media presence.

  1. Check the profile picture. A lot of people like to put their best face forward online, using glamour shots, 20-year-old photos, soft lenses and the like to enhance how they appear. That’s one thing. But if the profile shot depicts a woman with stunning looks and a lot of cleavage or a bare-chested man who’d look at home on the cover of a romance novel, that should send up some red flags.
  2. Look at other photos on the profile (if there are any) to be sure they match each other and the profile pic. It’s not uncommon for spammers to sub out the photo of one attractive woman for another as their profile shot.
  3. Are you already friends with the person? A common hack is to duplicate someone’s profile and send out requests to people who are already friends of the original (legitimate) profile. The new profile typically clones the original’s picture, but beyond that, it’s often just a bare-bones copy. If you have a lot of friends, or the person doesn’t appear often on their feed, it’s easy to forget you’re already connected. Even more confusing: Some users have legitimate backup profiles, and others may be creating a new one because they’ve lost access to the original. If you see a face that looks familiar, search your friends list to see whether you’re already connected. If you are, study the new profile and shoot a message to the old one to find out what’s up.
  4. Is there a banner? A lot of bogus profiles are slapped together quickly with just the basics. Oftentimes, the user won’t bother to put up a banner. Maybe they’re just in a hurry, or maybe this is just the latest in a series of profiles that have been reported to Facebook as spam and removed. Fake profile creators often take shortcuts because they can’t afford to put too much time into a profile that’s likely to be taken down in a matter of days or even hours. Does a profile look sparse or slapped together quickly? Does it lack biographical information, interests, group memberships, check-ins and reviews? If so, that should raise a concern.
  5. What do the person’s friends look like? If it’s a woman whose friend are all male, for instance, the chances are much higher that it’s a spambot. You’ll also learn to recognize which of your own friends routinely approve these users, because they’ll appear again and again on the false profiles’ friend lists. Spammers make use of the “friends in common” feature to target users who only allow requests from “friends of friends.” I’ve gone so far as unfriending real people who accept too many requests from bogus profile users, because I don’t want such users sending requests to me.
  6. Look at the person’s timeline. If you see “lonely girl” invitations to hook up or visit a risqué website, hightail it out of there pronto. This is not a real profile. (This should be obvious, but the fact that spammers keep using this tactic indicates it must fool at least some of the people some of the time.) In the absence of such a clear red flag, check out the posts. Has the content been composed or merely copied? Are they in a language you can understand? This one’s tricky, because some very real people do have friends from around the world and write posts in more than one language. But if all the posts are in a language I don’t speak, there isn’t much basis for communication, even if the profile is legit.
  7. Is the gender consistent? Maybe the profile pic shows a woman, but the name is a man’s. Also, check the “about” section. Does a woman’s profile refer to “places he’s lived”? If so, there’s good reason to be suspicious.
  8. Two first names? That’s one too many. Yes, some people really do have two first names (Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar, Shannon Elizabeth ...), but if you come across a profile that’s questionable in other ways, it’s not unusual to find names like Sheila Renee or Heather Holly on a scam profile.
  9. Is it a new profile? Not all new profiles are bad. Every Facebook user was new to the platform at some point. But the fact is that something like one-quarter of the planet is already on Facebook, so there are fewer people left to join. The chances are therefore higher, just mathematically speaking, that new users aren’t legitimate.
  10. Is the profile all about asking for something? The requests can take many forms. The most blatant is the aforementioned romantic come-ons (usually links to pay-for-porn sites). But there are also variations on the common Nigeria scams, promising more money at some later date in exchange for wiring financial “help” now. Some profiles aren’t fake, but they exist almost exclusively to promote a product. If most or all of the posts on a profile are ads, or if the user name is that of a company, I’m not interested.

I’m sure there are more telltale signs of bogus profiles, some of which may target women more frequently than men. If you know of any, feel free to leave them in the comments field. And as they used to say on Hill Street Blues, be careful out there.

I deal with anxiety and depression, but not in the way you might think

Stephen H. Provost

I’m not a psychologist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I have had experience with both anxiety and depression, and I wanted to share some of those experiences so my readers can understand what it’s like – at least for me. It may be different for others, but if this helps increase understanding and strikes a chord with anyone, it will have been worth it.

Anxiety and depression can go together, or not. Either one be triggered by a specific event, but it’s important to realize that they don’t have to be. There may be no specific external cause at all. It may just have to do with being physically tired, or it may be a response to an accumulation of things that have happened over months or years or even decades.

I don’t always know why I start hyperventilating and my heart starts racing when I lie down to take a nap – or why I don’t. I can’t always pinpoint why I’m feeling unmotivated or down.

If there is a trigger, it can be helpful to identify and remove it. But if there isn’t one, going around and around in your own head – or in conversation with someone else – can only heighten the feeling. At least, that’s how it feels to me, because I’ve always been a highly solution-driven person. I want to figure things out and move on. I want to control my own destiny. I don’t like to feel “stuck.”

Cause and effect

In fact, the feeling of being “stuck” is one of my biggest phobias: specifically, claustrophobia and a fear of being physically suffocated. I describe my experience of anxiety as being stuck in overdrive with the parking brake on. This feeling can be exhausting, especially if it lasts for a long time, and that feeling of exhaustion can morph into depression pretty easily. In fact, I’d go so far as to say my feeling of depression is emotional exhaustion.  

When I was in middle school, like a lot of kids, I felt alienated and was the target of teasing and bullying. I retreated into a shell of introversion until I figured out that, lo and behold, there was a way out: school. I realized that, because I was pretty smart, I could parlay that into classroom success. It was simple cause and effect. If I learned the material and figured out what the teacher wanted, I could provide it and (voila!) I could ace the class.

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This came very easily to me. After nearly flunking out during my freshman year of high school, I got mostly A’s and B’s as a sophomore. By the time I hit my senior year, I was a straight-A student, and I kept right on going into college, graduating summa cum laude. This might seem like a good thing, and in many respects, it was. But it also created an unrealistic expectation: If I did the work and performed well, I would be rewarded.

Reality check: As often as not, it doesn’t always work that way. A lot of things are subjective, and a lot of others are simply beyond your control. I’ve never been fired for cause, but I have lost two jobs despite solid-to-glowing reviews because of market forces and bad timing. This might not seem like a big deal. People get laid off every day. The figure it out.

But picture yourself as a depressed, bullied teenager who discovered his only ticket out of that lonely place was success. Now imagine that, in middle age, that ticket is ripped to shreds in front of his face, not once, but twice. Do you think that person might feel just a little like that ostracized, ridiculed teen all over again?

Maybe school wasn’t your ticket. Maybe you were good at something else: sports, music, acting. It doesn’t matter what it was. It gave you a sense of self-worth, a feeling that the jerks who’d belittled you in sixth grade about your acne or your hair or anything else they could find to poke fun at – that they’d been wrong. That you were worth something after all.

But you learned to rely on it and then, one day, the rug was pulled out from under you. Suddenly, people either started pulling away from you or tried to encourage you by saying they love you “for who you are” rather than what you can do. Some of them are probably sincere. Still, that doesn’t provide the kind of security you’re seeking. It can even be confusing because you’ve gone so “all in” on the cause and effect model that anything else feels phony ... even if it isn’t.

The model falls apart

For years, I received a regular paycheck for what I wrote. I felt valued, and the paycheck was proof of that. I felt like I was, to some degree, in control of my own destiny. Now, I don’t. Now, when I write, I never know what’s going to happen. Some people might buy my book, a lot of people won’t, and there’s no way of knowing whether the results are based on something I’ve done or sheer, blind luck (good or bad).

I’ve written a number of books, each of which involves months of work, but I hate sending out query letters and applying for jobs, even though I could do several of those in a day.

Here’s why: I know I can write a book. I can find my way to the end of the story and feel good about having told it – about having accomplished something. That cause-and-effect relationship is intact. But every time I send out a query letter, there’s a very good possibility I’ll be rejected. My fear of failure isn’t just an ego thing. It’s a feeling of having wasted my time; of being stuck. It’s also further confirmation that my old cause-and-effect model doesn’t seem to work. People can try to reassure me that it’s all “part of a process,” not an end in itself ... and that might make sense to me rationally, but my emotions don’t give a damn.

One of two things will happen:

“Dammit, I’m going to make this happen, come hell or high water!” or

“This is never going to happen. Why should I bother?”

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I don’t know how many times one side of my brain has told me, “Persistence pays off!” while the other side is reminding me of that “the definition of insanity is (supposedly) doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” I know it’s not exactly the same thing if I’m sending out requests to different people, but it feels that way – especially if the results are the same.

There’s a myth that people who experience anxiety and depression can’t accomplish anything. That’s not true. It may be true for some, but it’s a broad-brush statement that doesn’t fit with everyone. For me, staying busy can be an expression of my anxiety and a coping mechanism to keep myself from falling too deep into depression.

Because I’m afraid of being stuck, or paralyzed, that fear keeps me busy. But when that busyness fails to produce much in the way of concrete results (income, book sales, etc.), I start to feel anxious – like I’m stuck in overdrive with the parking brake on. I want to get somewhere, but I can’t, so I rev the engine even harder and wear myself out in the process.

Then I crash and, wouldn’t you know it, I’m stuck in the state of depression I was trying to avoid in the first place.

I’m not writing any of this in search of advice on one hand or pity on the other. Please don’t tell me to “get over it” or “buck up” or “shrug it off.” And please don’t suggest that I “get professional help,” either. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, but it’s something people suggest as a stock answer because they feel like they need to provide some kind of answer and can’t think of anything else to say. Trust me: A person who’s dealing with depression or anxiety has already thought of it – and decided to pursue it or not – long before you mentioned it.

Others may fight depression and anxiety for entirely different reasons that those I’ve mentioned here, but I suspect at least some of you reading this know where I’m coming from. Maybe, like me, you’re not interested in pity or advice; maybe you just want people to understand, even if they can’t relate.

I know that’s all I’m asking.