I was reminded about Telephone when I worked for Malcolm Forbes.
Every morning, he’d dictate his editorials, but did not do so without developing his own point of view first — by checking what the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal’s op ed pages and Time Magazine had opined on the subject, whatever the subject was.
Then, after he published his opinion, derived from someone else’s opinion, right-wing journals and opinionators would themselves use Malcolm’s opinion as the basis for their own, building more political lean into it.
That’s the game of Telephone: a group of people sit around in a circle. One person whispers something into the next person’s ear. That person then whispers what he heard into the next person’s ear, and so on, until everyone has gotten the message.
Then the last person says out loud what he heard. Everyone laughs, because whatever comes out at the end has been radically distorted from what went in at the beginning.
Leading up to what’s been going on with Telephone nowadays. Well, cell phone. And of course, since cell phone reception isn’t clear to begin with, the message is further warped.
On Twitter, one of the many journals I follow is an online political news medium called The Hill.
Many months ago, I became aware of a number of The Hill headlines followed by ledes (generally one sentence introducing the key point of an article) which I thought were particularly bad and one-sided reporting. I checked to see who wrote them. (Let me amend that: “I checked to see who the hell wrote them.”)
John Solomon was his name and his point of view seemed relentlessly right-wing – that is, contorted far beyond fact.
Beyond that, I knew nothing about John Solomon, except his presence in The Hill caused me to have suspicions about The Hill’s credibility as a factual news source.
Then, on November 12, 2019, in a New York Times article entitled, “The Man Trump Trusts for News on Ukraine,” Jeremy Peters and Ken Vogel gave me what is, in effect, an update on the lesson I learned from Malcolm Forbes: how right-wing myths are created, passed along from a number of mouths, and injected into people’s ears as propaganda.
So who is this John Solomon?
Though he worked for years at The Associated Press and briefly at The Washington Post, [Solomon] moved on from mainstream outlets and now sits at the center of a network of conservative journalists, radio hosts, cable news pundits and activists whose work reaches millions of Americans every day, and shapes the way a large swath of the country sees this pivotal moment.
John Solomon entered the larger public discourse via some Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee during the impeachment hearings, and subsequently by some witnesses.
Here’s how he was mentioned:
One witness testified to Congress that an article of [Solomon’s] was full of “non-truths and non sequiturs.” Another witness said that he could not recall a single thing that was correct in one of Mr. Solomon’s stories, then added sarcastically, “His grammar might have been right.”
And here’s a description of how this particular fake game is worked:
Media scholars describe the environment that has elevated Mr. Solomon’s stories as an information ecosystem entirely sealed off from other news coverage.
Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Columbia University who studies the conservative media, said people often mistakenly refer to the Fox News-talk radio world as an “echo chamber” of opinion when in fact it is more like “an interconnected set of authorities.”
“Sean Hannity talks about John Solomon,” she said, “and then that gets picked up on Rush and Levin.” The effect, she added, is that his reporting carries weight with conservative audiences. “That gives it an authority when they’re hearing it from multiple sources every day.” [My bolding]
When Mr. Solomon appears on television and the radio, Mr. Hannity and other conservative hosts often identify him as an investigative reporter and cite his decades of experience at news organizations like The A.P. But his critics see this as a sleight of hand to give his writing a veneer of nonpartisan objectivity.
Clearly, the game of Telephone has gotten uglier and more constricted in its participants. But the technique, as I observed it in Malcolm Forbes’ office, remains the same.
The difference? When you play Telephone, nobody takes as fact the malicious garble that comes out of the last person in the Telephone line.