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For Presidential Vetting, Check the Hot Sheets
There's a scene in 1997's sci-fi comedy Men In Black, where MIB veteran agent, Kay (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones), is training new recruit, Jay (Will Smith), on how to track down a murderous alien who is disguised somewhere among the human population.
After Kay decides it's time to "check the hot sheets" for leads, the two pull up to a city newsstand where Kay starts picking up copies of various tabloids.
Jay, perplexed by the display, mockingly asks, "These are the hot sheets?"
Kay quickly retorts with, "Best investigative reporting on the planet. But go ahead, read the New York Times if you want. They get lucky sometimes."
The humor in the scene obviously comes from the notion that in this bizarre new world Jay has been awoken to — where visitors from other planets have covertly and casually lived among humans for years — the most illegitimate, outlandish sources of information actually hold more truth than the work of the traditional, award-winning press.
Of course, a situation this silly could never be the case in real life, right? Information outlets designed primarily for the purpose of lowbrow entertainment couldn't possibly provide a more meaningful, insightful public service than that of the major national news organizations...could they?
For the longest time, even with how disgusted I've been with the political biases that run rampant throughout the news industry, my answer would have been no. Then, the 2016 election-cycle came along...and everything changed.
One of my biggest frustrations with the conduct of the national media over the past nine months or so has been the general unwillingness of journalists to properly vet the presidential candidates. The biggest benefactor of this negligence has been Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Sure, Trump has taken a fair amount of heat from the media. When he says something outrageous and offensive, news figures typically react. Such quotes are played over and over again on cable news, printed in numerous publications, and analyzed for the effects they may or may not have on his campaign. What journalists have failed to do, however, is hold him sufficiently accountable for his reflexive dishonesty and the rewriting of his own past.
The simple truth is that Donald Trump lies just about every day on the campaign trail. He's a casually dishonest man, who routinely claims to have held specific positions at times when he was publicly voicing very different positions. To bolster his arguments, he puts forth statistics that don't exist. He unflinchingly insists that he has never said things that there is video footage of him saying quite clearly and unmistakably (sometimes on multiple occasions). He demands credit for supposed achievements that he either had nothing to do with, or aren't even true. He'll take three different stances on the same issue in a single interview, and then praise himself for his consistency. He even tells us of the events he accurately predicted (thanks to his inherent wisdom) when there isn't any evidence of him ever making such predictions in the first place.
Even in the morally-bankrupt and reality-challenged world of American politics, the frequency and audacity of Trump's lies place him at a level few others have reached. Yet, few in the media have spent much time unraveling the man's hostile relationship with the truth, and exposing it in the context of Trump as a presidential candidate, and not an eccentric entertainer (which apparently grants one a fair amount of latitude).
A rare exception to the rule has been an investigative reporter named Andrew Kaczynski, a man I hadn't heard of until just a couple of months ago when some reputable journalists began referencing his work on Twitter. As it turns out, Kaczynski has been at the forefront of debunking many of the perpetuated myths put forth by Donald Trump throughout this campaign — myths that would have otherwise gone dismissed or unrealized by the media at large.
Kaczynski was the man who put to rest Trump's long-held claim that he had been opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning. It was a proud talking point Trump had used for many months, both in debates and interviews, as a way of distancing himself from George W. Bush's unpopular foreign policy. Despite there being no public evidence to support Trump's assertion, it was a narrative the media generally accepted. That was until Kaczynski discovered an archived 2002 airing of the Howard Stern radio show, in which Trump said that he, in fact, did support the Iraq effort.
Additionally, Kaczynski discovered that in Trump's 2000 book, The America We Deserve, the billionaire businessman actually advocated for an invasion of Iraq, citing WMDs as a primary reason. As you'll recall, Trump later said Bush a lied when he made this same claim to go to war — a claim supported by multiple intelligence agencies. Of course, Trump then claimed never to have said Bush lied.
If you think that's confusing, just take a look at the numerous contradictory positions Trump has taken on Iraq policy over the years, dating back to the Persian Gulf War. Kacyznski put together the chronology, which is an ongoing process because those positions still change quite regularly.
In a GOP debate last month, after Trump said that he had never supported U.S. intervention in Libya back in 2011, Kacyznski did some research and found that Trump absolutely supported going to Libya, and actually voiced that support on multiple occasions.
In a National Geographic documentary last year, Trump claimed that he had predicted the housing market collapse that began in 2006, and warned people at the time not to buy homes. Kacyznski checked out the claim, and found that Trump was doing precisely the opposite, urging home buyers to dismiss such worries, and stating that there would likely be no such burst.
Kacyznski has unearthed a tremendous amount of information on Trump over the past few months that includes everything from previously unknown statements of misogyny to harsh and thorough criticisms of Ronald Reagan (who Trump has regularly praised and compared himself to throughout the race).
From what I've read, Kacyznski has perhaps performed a more thorough vetting of Trump than just about any other single source in the national media. And the reason I find his reporting to be as interesting and unusual as the "hot sheets" from Men in Black is that he doesn't work for one the big networks or papers. Instead, he scours the Internet for the website BuzzFeed, which is mostly known for its entertainment-based viral videos, countdown lists, and online quizzes.
At the risk of sounding like I'm disparaging Kacyznski (I'm not), what does it say about the state of the national news media when one of the most diligent pursuers of accountability from a leading presidential candidate is an Internet researcher working for a pop-culture-driven website?
There's something very wrong with this picture.
Whether it's Trump, Clinton, or another candidate, shouldn't every major news outlet be investing time and energy into investigating the suspicious, unrealistic claims made by individuals vying to be the leader of the free world? And shouldn't they be pinning candidates down on their dishonest rhetoric, and demanding that they answer for it?
In Trump's case, it seems clear that many in the media are reluctant to do so, because they're afraid of losing access to Trump himself, who has proven to be a huge ratings draw. If that's truly the case, it would be hard to escape the irony of a news media that is now more concerned with ratings and readership than is the entertainment media.
Investigative journalism has been on the decline for some time, but it is a direly important part of the news industry that our society just can't afford to lose — especially in the arena of politics.
If the industry has forgotten how to do it, they might want to check out today's hot sheets, and learn a thing or two.