Sunday, August 12, 2018

About that Trump Whisperer

On this lazy Sunday in August, the NYT headline to a straight Politics news piece from Maggie Haberman reads "Trump Tweets Reflect Fixation on Women's Appearances".

source:abcnews.go.com
Throughout the Trump term in office, Haberman has amassed a reputation in some quarters as an access journalist who softens Trump's image along with humanizing treatment of Ivanka and Jared. This approach to news reporting adds fuel to the standard NYT editorial policy on political reporting that nearly always requires "balanced" treatment. The political reporter must report straight facts without interpretation and avoid context because adding useful context changes news reporting to opinion that must appear in the Opinion section. Or if an "in-between" approach is called for, label it clearly "News Analysis". "News Analysis" means we added context, but we were extra careful to be as objective as possible where "objectivity" is defined to mean - assemble facts that seem to go together, but always assume good faith on the part of polticians. That approach is, of course, an enabler of politicians who do act in bad faith.

We have called on the Times to recognize and report patterns of behavior, particularly Trump's patterns, as an important fact and not to take Trump's tweets or statements at face value as statements of his beliefs when a more rational interpretation is that Trump says whatever works most to his advantage in an environment of news reporting that fails to recognize his patterns of behavior for what they represent. Add to this the NYT forced balance approach to political journalism that requires looking for comparisons with presidents of the opposing party (Obama and Clinton).

So it is a bit surprising, given the Times "fair and balanced" standards,  that Trump's attacks on the physical appearance of women, which have gone on so long, are finally reported by the NYT in a straight news piece without seeking out behavior by Obama and Clinton for comparison.

OK, so that is a pattern of behavior, but what does it mean? He is fixated on the physical appearance of women. OK, but he has a lot of deep personal flaws, but of greater significance, if we focus on personal qualities, Trump seems to have an abundance of flaws of both character and personality and the president does not appear to have any positive human characteristics. The obvious conclusion to this piece is that Trump, the POTUS, is an unbelievably petty man - someone who none of us would want to know or deal with in our personal lives or in business. Yet that obvious conclusion would render this piece "opinion", so no go.

Without a conclusion from the author, the Haberman report drops off a cliff at the end.

And several typical NYT reporting flaws remain. Why does every article about Trump's many insults have to close with "and he never apologized"? What is that supposed to mean? Of course he never apologized. He never apologizes. And you apologize if you are a person who makes a mistake and hurt someone accidentally. If you insult people intentionally all the time, then an apology is meaningless. The Times' habit of closing with "and he never apologizes", lame as it is, does matter because it demonstrates just how clueless the NYT is in their coverage of Trump, even at this late date. If the Times had the courage to convey reality about Trump in their reporting, they would not fall back on the "fair and balanced" "He never apologized" as if that statement has meaning.

The Times insists on describing the Christopher Steele series of documents as "a dossier that made salacious claims about Mr. Trump." Never mind that the document represented fairly raw intelligence - so it is not really a dossier, so the document does not make "claims". Of greatest significance, the NYT news articles always link "Steele dossier" with "salacious" even though the least important item mentioned in the document is the possible existence of the pee tape. Which suggests that if the Times wants to talk about "fixations" and Trump, they may want to take a look at their own fixation on pee tape.







Friday, August 10, 2018

Polar Expressions

With the 2018 midterm elections looming, WaPo's headline this morning in a piece by Mike DeBonis plays to balance of those "two sides". So the big political news becomes "Pelosi is the star of GOP attack ads, worrying Democrats upbeat about midterms" which leads with:

"While Democrats grow optimistic about their chances of taking control of the House in November, they are increasingly anxious that the presence of their longtime and polarizing leader, Nancy Pelosi, is making it harder for many of their candidates to compete in crucial swing districts."

You could be forgiven for thinking that the description "polarizing leader" is an apt beginning to any accurate description of Trump. And anyone can see that the Republican talking points in campaigns play to a somewhat visceral reaction of the Republican base to certain prominent Democratic politicians who - not coincidentally - happen to be powerful women, or minorities, or both.

But our popular press gives themselves a pass in news reporting on politics and government - if one "side" does it - Trump in this case, then the other side can safely be assumed to "do it" - meaning Pelosi. If Trump polarizes, all day, every day, then reporting that Pelosi is a "polarizing figure" is deemed to pass the objectivity test. This approach in political news reporting may seem harmless enough, but this flaw in objective reporting, in its many forms, creates a loophole that is exploited by  Republican party campaign (and governing) tactics, as frequently discussed on this blog. And actual assymetry between the two leading parties that dominate U.S. politics is, as a matter of "objective" journalistic practice, explained away. And if you provide counterexamples, then you are presumed biased and your examples are safely ignored. At least that is the position of WaPo much of the time, and the NYTimes editors virtually all the time.
Source: bostonglobe.com

Late today, without reference to the above news article about "polarizing" Pelosi, WaPo opinion writer Paul Waldman in "What Republican attacks on Nancy Pelosi are really about" lays bare the flaws in WaPo's news reporting. The accompanying picture of Pelosi from the DeBonis piece is used again in Waldman's piece, which seems intentional as a call-out on the original article. Waldman explains in detail why Republican campaigns target Pelosi, stating:

"And it’s partly the us-versus-them conflict that has animated every Republican campaign for a half century. Democrats, they tell voters, aren’t like us. They don’t share our values; they’re elitist and alien and threatening. Those ideas can be expressed through issues, but what they’re about is cultural affinity: The Republican candidate is one of us, and the Democratic candidate is one of them."

So it is not about policy. And it is not about anything Pelosi herself actually does. It is all about Republican tactics to demonize the opposition - tactics that Trump was able to employ better than any other Republican candidate in the 2016 primaries.

The term "polarizing" thus applies best to Republican tactics in campaigns. It is something Republicans do - not something our country is, no something that both sides do, or leading Dems do. Only laziness of reporters and their editors, or even bias, can explain why a WaPo news article refers to Pelosi as "polarizing" and it takes a WaPo opinion piece to call out the flaw in WaPo's own reporting.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Flashing The Bunt Sign

For those in power, accountability is important. For the president of the U.S., accountability is of paramount importance due to the awesome power of the presidency as head of state, executive of government, and head of the party, especially in this case as head of the controlling party in the legislature.

And so, when this president, who is prone to holding political rallies for himself as a supplemental form of "governing", did so in Tampa July 31st.  CNN is, of course, a frequent target of Trump's attacks, so it is no wonder that the crowd of Trump devotees chanted menacingly at Jim Acosta during his live reporting.
source:cnn.com

When pressed on this at the daily presser, Sarah Sanders pushed back, citing "The zombie claim that won’t die: The media exposed bin Laden’s phone".

So the president stokes hatred and anger against the responsible news media. He holds rallies of his base - this one attracted QAnon signs. As the base menaces reporters - Trump calls them "fake news". Reporters feel concern for their safety. Sanders pivots to a generalized vague "condemnation" using the "we have always said" form or expression directed at no one in particular, but just as quickly ducks responsibility on behalf of Trump with an irrelevant call for the press to be "responsible", citing that zombie claim.

But whether or not that zombie claim is true or false is irrelevant. In fact, deflecting news organizations to fact checking is a tried and proven method of distraction - more effective than a true claim would be because more work goes into proving a claim false. And if the claim, if true, is irrelevant anyway, then fact checking that claim is an exercise in futility.

Having distracted with a "both sides" argument (where "both sides" means the president on one side and his enemy the press on the "other side"), Sanders pivoted quickly to wrap up with an endorsement of "free speech" - which is strong encouragement to Trump supporters to keep up the good work, to intimidate the press at these rallies and, who knows, any place they may care to track down these members of the press.

Deny
Deflect
Distract
Accuse

(DDDA) is the go to tactical response in these situations. The final statement that follows the DDDA combination inviting continued menacing in the future - "While we certainly support freedom of the press, we also support freedom of speech..." which is effectively like the third base coach flashing the bunt sign in the midst of a raft of other gestures. The Trump supporters, like the batter, know which signs to ignore and which to take to heart.
source:howtheyplay.com

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Dumped in the Trumpster

If Donald Trump does not acknowledge that Team Putin has and is attacking the U.S. with cyberwarfare, he succeeds on centering the ongoing news coverage on his denials, which is consistent with his methods used to control media coverage during the 2016 election campaign.

If Trump were to acknowledge Russian cyberattacks, the media questions and discussion would center on "Mr. President, what are you going to do about Russia's attacks?". Trump does not want to go there because he does not want to do anything at all about Russia's cyber warfare. Trump does not want to do anything about Russian cyber warfare because Russian cyber warfare inures to his benefit.

Our mainstream media, including MSNBC, despite calling on all kinds of experts on these matters, still struggles to ignore the president's statements, which are such an effective tool to deflect their attention. Even after two years of this nonsense, the media struggles.

The only effective way for the media to cover this endless obfuscation would be to speculate about matters unknown assuming a worst case scenario. The absolute worst case - that the president is an agent of a foreign enemy - actually provides the most consistent, credible explanation of the behavior of all bad actors throughout the current crisis.

"Mr. President, what did you discuss with Vladimir Putin in private? People are saying (to borrow a phrase from the Obfuscator in Chief)...people are saying that you and Putin agreed on further conspiracies to sabotage the 2018 election, similar to your collaboration on 2016. We suspect that you made agreements on Syria, which, together with your side agreements with the Saudis and the UAE, will result in enormous personal financial gain to you and the Kushners."

And so on. The only way to fight this manipulation by Trump of the media's reluctance to go beyond the minimization of the bad case is for the media to speculate on the maximal worst case. Right now, Trump is just doing a dance as he always has and the media is dancing along with him. The media has come to depend on the "he says/she says - the truth will out as we fact check" so much that they do not know how to shift gears.

The media needs to keep speculating until those tax returns are released and the American translator in Helsinki testifies under oath divulging the details of the most recent secret meeting between Trump and Putin. If the American translator left the room, we need to know that. We need to know the reason so many Republican congressmen had to be in Moscow for the 4th of July this year and why Rand Paul needs to go there.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Problem With Appearances

The more extreme the overt actions of the U.S. President, the more compelled our U.S. traditional media feels they need to mince words.

So, the WaPo, behaving in the mold of the careful NYT, headline reads:

"Trump offers little pushback to Putin's denial of interference"
source:cnn.com
The problem of that headline is that it arises from a place of deliberate caution, rather than a place of reporting plain facts... from a place of expecting any U.S. president, acting in the interest of the United States, would, of course, finally, firmly call out Russia's attacks at the U.S. (Actually, not agree to meet with Putin.) Instead, the WaPo, determined that there is some kind of push back, decides to describe the "pushback" as "little", which renders the headline way off the mark.

CNN betrays its own problems reporting the facts with:

"An unprecedented refusal to believe his own intelligence agencies"

We do not know and can not know what another person believes. We only know what they say they believe. A person may lie. A person guilty of substantial wrongdoing is likely to deliberately lie. The strong possibility, nay, the likelihood that Trump has betrayed his country and, of course, knows that he and his team have worked with Russian for a long time means that he needs to deny the findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies in order to cut off all serious discussion of Russian operatives efforts to undermine democracy. After all, it's not just intelligence agencies at this point. The Department of Justice continues to issue indictments of Russians who have acted against the interests of the United States. That "unprecedented refusal to believe his own intelligence agencies" is old, old news at this point.

The dramatic breaking news that these organizations hold so dear, yet recoil from when the news is so astounding, is that Trump, fresh off his meeting with leaders of NATO countries who he attacked with ferocity, soon after meeting with G7 in Canada, whose leaders he also attacked, cozied up to Putin in Helsinki.

Even in their editorial Trump just colluded with Russia. Openly (granted, that title's an improvement), WaPo pulls their punches. Just because the truth is so shocking - that's my guess for this behaviot.

Twice in the editorial, WaPo tells us what Trump "appeared" to do. Think of the logic to that. He spoke openly and plainly. Yet, his statements can only be appearances.

"Mr. Trump appeared to align himself with the Kremlin against American law enforcement before the Russian ruler and a global audience."

If he only "appeared" to align himself with Putin, what is the source of the doubt? Was it something he said?

"As Mr. Trump apparently sees it, Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia, war crimes in Syria, poison attack in Britain and the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine are morally equivalent to the policies pursued by previous U.S. administrations."

Here we mix two prevalent flaws of mainstream media - shying away from accurate statements that would, if written, directly report an outrage by a politician, and, on a related note, telling us what a politician believes, even though we can not know what a person believes.

WaPo continues later in the editorial, "Incredibly, Mr. Trump appeared to endorse a cynical suggestion by Mr. Putin that Mr. Mueller’s investigators be granted interviews with a dozen Russian intelligence officers indicted in the DNC hack in exchange for Russian access to associates of William Browder, a financier whose exposure of high-level corruption and human rights crimes in Moscow led to the adoption by Congress of the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on those responsible. Mr. Putin’s citation of bogus Russian charges against Mr. Browder was matched by Mr. Trump’s garbled reference to “the Pakistani gentleman” who was falsely alleged by right-wing conspiracy theorists to be behind the leak of DNC emails."

Again, WaPo insists on reporting what Mr. Trump "appears" to be doing, yet, if they are so intent on reporting appearances, why not report that Mr. Trump appears to be acting as an agent of a foreign country, against U.S. foreign policy interests? Unfortunately, that reticence creates a loophole that Trumpian lackey propaganda outlets are happy to exploit. Not so with New York Magazine's:

"At Summit With Russian, Trump Betrays His Country In Plain Sight"

That's a headline that is needed and avoids the problem of WaPo and NYT that often insist on minimalism to the point of absurdity - trying so hard to objectively report the facts that they fall short of factual reporting.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Narrative vs. Counternarrative

Start with the tactic, then report the content.

Trump is a master at manipulation of news reporting. Journalists need to report tactics themselves fully as news items.
.
So when "Trump hosts citizens 'permanently separated' from loved ones", he is demonstrating his mastery of reclaiming the narrative, principally among his Republican supporters, that began to be lost with news reports on separation of young children from parents being kept in cages. Trump knows never to allow his opponents to establish the frame for his administrations actions or inaction. He knows that when a narrative takes hold against his administration, he needs to establish a counternarrative that directly attacks the opposing narrative so that his supporters will latch on to that counternarrative. Thus, the "permanent separation" of family members achieves the goal. "Permanent separation - death - is worse than temporary separation of children from parents. Score 1. And the visual of sympathetic victims - family members of citizens who were murdered or killed in car accidents (with the accidental nature of those deaths deemphasized for maximum effect) directly counters the crying child who has come to symbolize the current crackdown.

The point here is that Trump's defense, such as it is, is no defense at all. It is an example of his continued successful deflection from himself to others. The buck never stops here. For analogy, his staged 'permanent separation' event harks back to 2016 when Trump trotted out the Clinton accusers for a press conference right before the second debate, shortly after the Access Hollywood tape became public.

That which makes Trump appear most guilty calls for the most drastic accusations and visuals to create an equally compelling counternarrative. Of course, the 2016 campaign between Trump and Clinton was reduced to the negative views of Trump established based on reported facts vs. Trump's allegations against Clinton that only needed to be leveled in order to create and maintain the negative frame around her candidacy. Likewise, Trump's accusations against the FBI and the "deep state" are made to counter the frame of his team's close ties to Russia throughout the campaign and intensifying during his presidency. None of Trump's accusations against Clinton or leaders at the FBI and Justice (who happen to be Republicans) make him innocent. These are all examples of a pattern of guilty behavior.

For Trump, you fight accusations of sexual misconduct with accusations of sexual misconduct. Replace the frame with a like frame. Fight accusations of horrific family separation with accusations of horrific family separation. The full story never matters. All that matters is winning by replacing the frame of reality with a different frame more favorable to you.

Report the pattern of behavior first. Force the content to be secondary. "Nothing to see here, but look over there!" actually works best when the distraction is a false frame created by Trump because that sends otherwise responsible reporters fact checking his lies when their time would be better spent analyzing and accurately describing his devious patterns of behavior.

George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, has recently garnered attention to his suggestion that news media report Trump's lies using a "truth sandwich" approach. In Margaret Sullivan's "Instead of Trump's propaganda, how about a nice 'truth sandwich'?,

"First, he says, get as close to the overall, big-picture truth as possible right away. (Thus the gist of the Trump-in-Singapore story: Little of substance was accomplished in the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, despite the pageantry.) Then report what Trump is claiming about it: achievement of world peace. And then, in the same story or broadcast, fact-check his claims.

That’s the truth sandwich — reality, spin, reality — all in one tasty, democracy-nourishing meal."

But we need much more focused treatment than that example.

Whenever Trump says or does anything, first divine the purpose. Assume the worst, that he is being purely tactical. Report the tactic because that is really all that matters. Trump's claims are meaningless because he is all about tactics and lying whenever it is convenient. Fact checking is not an essential part of the story because the act of fact checking distracts from meaning and allows Trump to replace any true narrative with his own narrative. News organizations are still not getting that Trump uses their "fair and balanced reporting supported by fact checking" to make them unwitting tools for his own purposes. With the substantial support Trump gets from loyal Fox News, Republicans in Congress, and Putin, the news media needs to do a better job.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Shock But Not Surprise When Tactics Become Policy

When political tactics become more and more extreme with the only care winning on policy outcomes, the tactics themselves become a policy outcome.

For example, as we have pointed out, the repeated Republican congressional tactic of threatening government shutdowns - literally holding the functioning of the U.S. government hostage - as a nonnegotiable demand for desired tax or spending bills when the president is a Democrat, results in severe disruptions of the federal government. But that is OK with Republicans who, as a policy prescriptive, are ideologically opposed to a functioning federal government. This shaking of the government tree is discouraging to Americans who may see themselves as fulfilling a duty to their country by serving in government. To Republicans, that is a bad thing, unless they are serving in the military or serving in a federal department with the express intent of undoing the purpose for which that department is dedicated, such as State, Education, Interior.

Jonathan Chait clearly explains the Trump team motivation in "Why Trump Is Using Hostage Tactics on Family Separation."

Chait raises the issue of the government shutdowns as an example of hostage taking. But this time, as he points out, the hostages are actual children being separated from parents and held in cages. Trump is using these hostages in part to discourage immigration, but also to bargain for Democrats to agree to Republican demands on the details of immigration reform. As Chait points out, if Democrats accede to Republican demands, Republicans will continue to take and hold hostages to enact their desired legislation.

In the meantime, the tactic of holding immigrant children as hostages is itself a policy outcome, not just a tactic. In the U.S. we do not hesitate to hold children as prisoners. And, in 2018, it's only June. A lot can happen between now and the end of the year. Worse action from this administration will not be a surprise.