Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Mr. Baker's Balancing Act

Peter Baker writes opinion pieces for the New York Times under the label of news on politics. NYT does not call these opinion, but these puff pieces are tantamount to opinion. In this worldview Trump is a poor, misunderstood beast who does some things for which he is criticized by some people who are on the other side. (If people who were on the same side switch sides, or if they never thought of themselves as being on the same side as Trump - 'Never Trumpers', we at the NYT just report that as criticism by Democrats and some Republicans. That's the tidy shorthand we use to fix reality into the two sides format that we cherish.

Baker is the master of the softened phrase. If a plain statement of fact would make a certain 'side" look bad, then soften the statement even if that means changing the meaning or making a statement that is unsupportable on its face.

He commits this aggressive crime against the English language and plain factual reporting throughout his writing.

"Trump's War Against 'the Deep State' Enters a New Stage" starts off badly with the title. In this moment for our republic, in a post-impeachment week of mass resignations, firings and withdrawn appointments, is it really necessary to use the Trumpsters' favored term "deep state"?  Putting the term in quotes does not change the warped framing being employed and misses the opportunity to tell the reader exactly what is going on. Instead, Baker and the Times adhere to the two sides rendering of reality. One side says this, the other side says that, no one can know for sure what is happening. Everyone is biased except us, your faithful both sides political 'reporters' at  the NYT.

Then there's the subhead:

"The suggestion that Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman should now face punishment by the Pentagon was one sign of how determined the president is to even the scales after his impeachment."

We know a slick softening is coming in any sentence that begins with "the suggestion that" along with the passive voice. "Was one sign" is another softy. But the worst phrasing is "how determined the president is to even the scales after his impeachment." Really? Is that all Trump wants? To even the scales? Almost makes it seem like the fair thing to do. The only person trying to even the scales here is Mr. Baker.

But it gets worse with repetition of the coddling and bothsidesist phrasing.

"This is an unsettled time in Mr. Trump's Washington."

What the hell is that supposed to mean? "This is an unsettled time" is classic, bothsidesish phrasing that, regardless what you think of what is going on, tells us absolutely nothing other than the fact that the author is a strict believer in bothsidesism. Unsettled is a vague assertion without attributing good or bad acts, good or bad faith to anyone - just unsettled because some people are upset, maybe a lot of people, probably upset on both sides, but we are clear on one thing - it's Mr. Trump's Washington. Okay...

"In the days since he was acquitted in a Senate trial, an aggrieved and unbound president has sought to even the scales as he sees it.". The word "aggrieved" has many words of similar meaning, but "aggrieved" in particular, unlike "resentful" or "vindictive", connotes a person with a grievance, likely legitimate, due to harm inflicted by another party. And remember, this is the "determined" president that we met earlier in the article. Baker and NYT make a habit of employing this kind of almost invisible description laundering in their clear intent to deprive sentences of objective clear meaning in favor of an appearance of fairness. After all, you wouldn't want an 'aggrieved" Mr. Trump 'determined' to turn his wrath on the NY Times.

An "unbound" president reminds one of Prometheus or Sampson, that is, a god or a hero with the chains removed.. "Unbound" is not inaccurate, but unbound by what? By any principles, law, or maybe norms or a sense of decency? But like the passive voice that omits the subject of an action, applying an adjective to the president without amplification can make him seem dignified and deserving of respect. For more on the story from that perspective, turn to Fox News...

"The war between Mr. Trump and what he calls the 'deep state' has entered a new, more volatile phase as the president seeks to assert greater control over a government that he is convinced is not sufficiently loyal to him."

OK, so Baker knows we are entering a new phase and says he knows what Trump is thinking. Despite a reporting style that makes him avoid plain statements of fact that could make him seem biased, if those statements got into the wrong hands, you know, of someone biased say, on Fox News, Baker knows that Trump is "convinced" the government is not sufficiently loyal to him. That phrasing is almost a full-throated endorsement of the thought - there really is a deep state after all! No wonder Trump is aggrieved!

"...the president has shown a renewed willingness to act even if it prompts fresh complaints about violating traditional norms." In that sentence, Baker, a reporter, retreats from stating that Trump violates traditional norms, something that is plain to see, in favor of bothsidesing the thought. I cant say he does what he does if it sounds bad - I have to render his actions as something that the other side will criticize.

"But the withdrawal of the four career prosecutors working on the case left the unmistakeable impression that they thought something improper had happened.? "unmistakeable impression'? Is that a joke? Is there any more mealy mouth way of saying what happened even possible?

"Mr. Trump has long suspected that people around him - both government officials and even some of his own political appointees - were secretly working against his own political interests. His impeachment...has only reinforced that view..." Wait. How does Peter Baker know what Trump suspects, that is, what he thinks? Based on what Trump, who lies all the time about everything says? This Baker soft treatment is almost an exoneration of Trump. Baker is effectively applying a standard that says - suppose Trump is innocent of all wrongdoing and is, if fact, a victim of a 'deep state' conspiracy by people who just hate him and are trying to get him. How would I write about Trump in this situation. And this is it.

"But Mr. O'Brien is presiding over a broader housecleaning at the National Security Council."

Does a housecleaning ever a bad thing? No, of course not. Let's make the government more efficient. At the NYT, let's put Mr. Trump and everyone allied with him in the best possible light.We wouldn't want to call it a purge. Maybe Mr. Trump cares about efficient government. Makes sense - he cares about corruption in Ukraine, right?

A more useful, meaningful rendering would have placed the latest 'housecleaning' in the context of the many departures from the Trump staff, advisors, and Cabinet positions where only the most ardent loyalists to a Mafia-style boss remain to assist in the expanding abuse of power we are seeing in plain sight.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Retribution vs. Revenge

Retribution vs. Revenge. Which side shall win?
So far, retribution is winning, at least in the Washington Post.
Today's headline:

WaPo 02082020
And then there is the first line of the story:
"President Trump on Friday punished two witnesses who testified in the investigation that led to his impeachment, removing them from their posts in an apparent campaign to exact retribution on his perceived enemies in the wake of his acquittal in the Senate this week." [Emphasis addded]

"Retribution" means giving back what is due and has come to mean "punishment inflicted on someone as vengeance for a wrong or criminal act." as tells us. "Revenge" means to come back, but as tells us in contrast with avenge which means to punish a wrongdoing with the intent of seeing justice done, revenge is more personal, less concerned with justice and more about retaliation by inflicting harm. So you avenge wrongdoing to seek justice, but you seek revenge if a person's actions hurt you, whether or not those actions were morally wrong. But you seek retribution if those actions were morally wrong and those actions hurt you.

When Vindman testified before Congress truthfully to matters consistent with other truth tellers like Marie Yovanovitch who testified, did he do wrong? No, of course not. Therefore, "retribution" as a description of Trump's behavior has no place in objective description of these events. But using the term "retribution" works well if you are WaPo and your goal is not objective reporting, but is "balanced" treatment of the personalities in the news. If WaPo reporters wrote only of vengeance and revenge, readers might think of Trump as a petty person. Better to provide balanced coverage. The subheadline imples this - rather than calling Trump's actions "vindictive", WaPo shifts to the passive voice and calls them "moves that were condemned as vindictive and an attempt to intimidate officials." That pesky passive voice is always a sure sign of an attempt to balance the reporting.

"Retribution" has a softer sound to it and implies normalcy, but most of all, as noted above, the term implies that the action is proper and fitting to the circumstances. That's why the White House prefers that term and used it this week in their official statement on the impeachment outcome:

"Rep. Adam Schiff lied to Congress and the American people with a totally made up statement about the President’s phone call.  Will there be no retribution? "

That happens to sound like a threat as well...

Nothing to worry about here. No creeping fascism. Just an incremental change. The President can hire and fire officials at any time for any reason. Yes, and he can wait until the day after the Senate vote to acquit him. Nothing wrong with that. Apparently he can do anything he wants. Anything. And the mainstream press will do their best to balance it.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Accessory to the Crime

In "No One Believes Anything’: Voters Worn Out by a Fog of Political News
Paying attention to the impeachment inquiry and other developments means having to figure out what is true, false or spin. Many Americans are throwing up their hands and tuning it all out." the New York Times tells us "Swaths of the American public are numb and disoriented by information saturation — struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact."

But does the New York Times acknowledge they have some role in whether and how swaths of the American public react to this "fog of political news?" Does the NYT cut through the fog? Let's see.
Their report:

A few examples of regular people busy with their daily lives.
The Democrats took their case against Trump to the public last week.
Many Americans were not paying attention and some do not trust "the media".
A flood of "partisan" news leads to exhaustion.
The president lies all the time which makes people numb and unsure who to believe.
But many Americans turn to sources they trust - some on left, and others on the right.
Examples of people tuning out.
Fake information makes the picture confusing.
Sheer volume makes it confusing - Els Ruijter is a left-leaning independent who complains that certain programs have such disdain for Trump it becomes a Trump bashing show.
Then there are "the politicians", "first among them Trump" who lie so much that people don't know what to believe.
Comparisons to Putin's Russia.
Some Republicans do not like Trump's brand of politics either.
But Mr. Memory, a Republican, complains about lack of coverage of Trump being cheered at a football game in Alabama in comparison to the coverage of Trump being booed in Nats Park, which he sees as liberal bias.
Gallup Poll about lack of confidence in the media.
Conservatives who feel the cultural tide has turned against them, that liberals have contempt for them.
News avoidance cuts across political lines and the concept of left and right no longer fits - like Russia.
When it comes to Americans evaluating news sources, we are now like Russia.

In this news article the facts presented clearly attribute material blame to one side - Trump and the Republicans for creating a fog of confusion and exhausting voters, but the conclusions drawn from those facts embrace the both sides view of politics. That is, both sides are presumed equally to blame at all times in all ways. For example, Trump is the one who lies all the time, but instead of creating mistrust of anything Trump says, that somehow causes "confusion". And the "sheer volume" of his lies magnifies that "confusion" by inducing "exhaustion".  Now, in a sane world, that set of facts would make any fair minded person mistrust everything Trump and his supporters say and turn elsewhere for reliable information. Unfortunately, the NYT, so dedicated to the proposition that they must remain "above the fray", ignores the obvious conclusion. It would be simpler to ignore Trump entirely if you want to know the truth.

For balance, NYT talks to a self-reported "left-leaning independent", whatever that is supposed to mean, who complains about the "sheer disdain" of some shows for Trump. But if Trump lies all the time about everything - and that is treated as fact - how would that be reported without seeming or being disdainful? What would you think of a commentator who said - "Trump lies all the time and that shows he is not afraid of the truth."?

For more balance, NYT talks to a self-reported Republican who complains about lack of coverage of the cheering crowd for Trump at a football stadium in Alabama. The article fails to note that the appearance at Nats Stadium was of interest because Trump has limited almost all appearances to friendly venues, mostly at this campaign style rallies. Therefore, the appearance at an Alabama football game falls into the same category as a rally. The NYT article fails to note the distinction. Of course, this example is besides the point - cheers or booes in either venue have to do with popularity or unpopularity and nothing to do with policy - domestic or foreign or Trump's actions and their impact on policy.

The article concludes by comparing the situation in the U.S. with Russia, ignoring Trump and the Republicans singular role in this as dramatic as Putin's role in making Russia what it is today.

Unfortunately this article is typical of the NYT. The facts presented in the piece would logically lead to the conclusion that Trump and the Republicans are causing significant damage to the information environment, but the writer (and likely the editor) feel compelled to dig for examples to validate the "both sides" premise, which only muddies the issue in the same way that Trump and the Republicans muddy the issues. Thus does NYT act as an accessory to the crime of turning the U.S. to the Russian model of deliberate misinformation on politics.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

More Distractions and Confusion and It's Working

As POTUS, Donald Trump likes to distract and confuse. It's working. At least it works on the New York Times.To be fair, much of the objectivity-based press fell for the ruse, too.

In the Times editorial "Trump, Greenland, Denmark. Is This Real Life?
Or a Peter Sellers movie?" the editorial board treats the Trump trial balloon to buy Greenland mostly as farce. And the trip cancellation solely as a reaction to Denmark's response because that reaction is in character for Trump.

Granted, the editors noted a few serious issues involved:
1. Greenland's deposits of rare earth metals, crucial to the defense industry, which are now mostly sourced from China.
2.  The U.S. military's "northernmost missile-warning, space surveillance and deepwater seaport" in Greenland.
3. China's recent efforts to establish a "foothold", or at least a toe-hold in Greenland.

But the NYT editorial board concludes that Trump's cancellation of his upcoming trip to Denmark after being rebuffed on the Greenland sale proposal can be taken entirely thus:

"That the president of the United States would demonstrate such willful ignorance of how the world works, that he would treat a territory and its independent people like goods and chattel, that he would so readily damage relations with an old and important ally out of petty pique, is frightening."

But maybe the NYT editorial board does not know 'how the world works' - if this president abruptly cancels a trip to meet with an "ally" (ally in quotes because an ally of the U.S. is so often not an ally of Trump and vice versa) for what appears to be a ridiculous excuse, let's ask ourselves about the agenda for that trip. Maybe he needs to cancel to save face, to avoid awkward confrontations,  and not make a fool of himself.

A hot topic in Denmark this year and especially this summer is the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline being built by Russia to transport natural gas to Western Europe. The proposed route passes through Denmark's territorial waters. Russia has been avidly pursuing Denmark's approval in order to complete the project this calendar year and enter into new long term contracts for delivery. Otherwise the pipeline will be delayed if constructed along an alternate route. The pipeline poses a threat to Ukraine's current route for much of Russia's gas transport to Western Europe.

The U.S. has so far opposed the pipeline:
Senate panel backs Nord Stream 2 pipeline sanctions bill

And Trump has spoken out against the pipeline.

But Trump opposing Putin on a major issue has been rare and awkward when it happens. The issue is complicated by the tensions between Western Europe's goal of obtaining adequate energy at low price, Eastern and Central Europe suspicion of Russia, and U.S. substantial reserves of natural gas which could compete with the Russian supply, but at higher prices due to transportation costs for the LNG.

One can hardly imagine Trump having a constructive meeting with an ally, especially if he needs to negotiate with a woman who he knows will be better versed on the issues. When confronted with his incompetence and ignorance, Trump needs to find a way out. When Putin's wishes are a factor, things become too tricky for him to handle. So he needed to bluff his way out of the meeting.

The problem with NYT (like too many other news orgs) is that even after so many lies by Trump, they are willing to take his statements at face value as a first pass if those statements can not immediately be "fact-checked" and found false instead of asking "what is really going on here?" and pursuing more likely explanations.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Surprise: These Party Activists are Party Activists

CNN's "These GOP women see nothing wrong with Trump's comments" has been exposed as fundamentally misleading. Subtitled "CNN's Randi Kaye speaks to a group of Republican women who say they don't have a problem with President Trump's racist attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color.", the setup implies that these eight women are a focus group of somewhat randomly selected Republican women from Dallas.

Erik Wemple, among others, points out that the CNN piece (still up on CNN website at this writing, without correction or clarification) , and teed up in reporting by Anderson Cooper and Kate Boduan without further amplification, features a group of activist Republican women. And that CNN had previously used these same women in 2016 in a similar role.

After CNN's misleading identification of these women was exposed, as Wemple reports,

"CNN host Ana Cabrera on Wednesday afternoon characterized 'several' of the women as being 'affiliated with groups that support President Trump.' The purpose, said Cabrera was "to see if any of them have changed their minds.'"

So we are back on the diner circuit rationale employed by NYT, CNN and other mainstream political outlets. After the surprise victory by Trump in 2016, the presumption was that all those white Trump voters would come around soon. So each Trump outrage for months was followed like dusk follows day by a team of reporters visiting diners to see if they changed their minds about Trump. Which they never did - because the premise that any rational person would now be outraged by Trump was no better than the idea that any rational person on November 8, 2016 would be outraged by Trump.

This episode reminds me of an incident one year ago. S.E. Cupp, the conservative pundit, in a guest piece in the NYT with the straw man (straw woman?) title "No, Not All Women Are Democrats", wrote the following:

"Salena Zito, co-author of the new book “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics,” recently surveyed 2,000 Trump voters in the rust belt. They are the kind of voters, she says, that experts overlooked in 2016 and still don’t get today.

One of them is Amy Maurer, a 43-year-old well-educated suburban mom in Kenosha, Wis, who is on the executive board of the Republican Party of Kenosha County. The Clinton campaign aimed ads at Republicans— even women like Ms. Maurer — keying in on Mr. Trump’s misogynistic remarks.

“It’s not my favorite thing,” she said when I asked her about the way Mr. Trump has talked about women. “It’s kind of like what I told my mother-in-law when she complained that her heart surgeon wasn’t very friendly: If he’s good at what he does, who cares? He’s not there to be your best friend.”'

Except she did not write exactly those words. The article awkwardly suggests that Zito surveyed a large group of Trump voters, but then quotes a Republican woman activist in order to provide some insight on the thinking of representative Republican women voters. So what gives. Well, the original piece omitted significant information about Amy Maurer:

"An earlier version of this article omitted a relevant detail about Amy Maurer, a Wisconsinite who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Ms. Maurer is a Republican Party official in Kenosha County; that information should have been included with her comments."

Actually, no. That makes no sense. Ms. Maurer should not have been quoted. A Republican woman who is not a party activist should have been quoted, if we are trying to sample the crowd of 2,000 fairly.

So why is it so difficult to find Republican Party women who are not activists?  It's not.

My best guess is that the two mainstream new organizations who invariably bend over backwards the most to assure conservatives that they are truly objective - CNN and NYT - prefer to give as much control to Republicans when they "balance" their presumably "biased" political articles with pieces about Republican voters. And when they enlist Republicans in that cause, people like SE Cupp, and whoever puts together these "focus groups" for CNN, they are yielding editorial ground to a class of people - Republican political operatives - who seize every opportunity to distort the facts and avoid disclosure, in order to craft their favored narrative.

For the "facts don't matter" crowd, disclosures don't matter either, especially in these two cases where disclosure would render the pieces useless as a gauge of representative Republican women.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

What's Wrong with these Headlines?

New York Times today:

As America Turns More Divided The Mood Turns More Tense
It's the first time in more than a century that all but one state legislature is dominated by a single party.
As each state's majority party pushes its agenda, the weaker one has grown more combative

Absolutely nothing there to suggest that the current American president pushes his agenda of division daily, as he did throughout the 2016 campaign. Nothing to suggest that Republicans have been playing extreme hardball in state legislature for decades and Democrats have been slow to catch on to these tactics. And Republican tactics have become more extreme - not only to suppress the votes of citizens, but to thwart the outcome of elections if a Democrat defeats a Republican governor, but the state legislature remains controlled by Republicans, by stripping the incoming governor of powers normally retained by the executive, which were enjoyed by his or her predecessor. See Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio. (Incumbent Ohio governor refused to play, to his credit.)

The NYT has a strong bias toward skewing the facts toward a balanced conclusion when reporting on politics. Thus the NYT fails to distinguish between fair, accurate reporting and balance. Balance in reporting is regarding by traditional reporters as an attribute when a fair and accurate conclusion can not be known. But Republicans in office together with Fox News reporting have teamed together to furnish America with a 24/7 propaganda channel dedicated to keeping Republicans in office and their policies in place. This conspiracy of the right has built on a mountain of lies that has worsened with Trump as president. True balance would mean that a responsible news organization (i.e. NYT or WaPo) would confront the mountain of lies with the hard truth - not after-the-fact fact checking,which always comes too late because liars have already moved on to the next lie, thus controlling the overall narrative - but aggressive reporting on the fact of Fox News as lying propagandists.And not trying so hard with every news story to report "both sides" as equal and opposite as possibly true, when they are not. The net result of the narrative that America hears is Fox News propaganda on one side and NYT maybe-yes-maybe-no "balance", which ironically yields an  imbalance in sum while failing to be accurate by implying that some lies may be true.

The NYT article provides factual information about the contentiousness of activity in the divided state legislatures, but fails to note that extreme gerrymandering has been practiced more by Republicans - to greater effect on election outcomes - than Democrats. This is not to suggest that Democrats have been perfect in all cases, but observing how Republicans behave in office and looking for the same thing in Democrats will always yield some examples, but accurate reporting requires continuing the analysis at that point to report full context, rather than declaring vicotry - done, we found an example of Democrats behaving badly so "both sides do it".

We see this again in the recent NYT:
People are trying to figure out Bill Barr. Meanwhile He's Stockpiling Power. Is he the operator who spun the then-secret Mueller report? Or the straight shooter who later disclosed portions that were damaging to President Trump?
NYT syntax shows how they gravitate to the middle of all stories relating to politics. Their headlines often take the almost comical form "On the One Hand, Yes - But on the Other Hand ,No". Bill Barr wrote an unsolicited paper in support of unbridled presidential power - a job application for AG - prior to his nomination.

The problem with these headlines is that when the NYT is satisfied with any conclusion that validates the middle as true and treats with great skepticism any conclusion that treats one "side" as different qualitatively as different from the other "side" they themselves help to create the reality of a "divided" country because that behavior encourages more extreme tactics. Republicans know that the more extreme their tactics, the more the NYT will be willing to work toward the "safe" conclusion that Democrats do it too.

And why, NYT, is the opposite of "straight shooter" an "operator who spun the then-secret Mueller report"? Isn't the opposite of straight shooter a liar?

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Hypocrisy Watch

Keeping a lookout for charges of "hypocrisy" is a safe space for traditional media reports on politics. Leave no possible charge of hypocrisy unexamined lest we focus on stories that actually mean something. Was Elizabeth Warren singularly effective in establishing the Consumer Protection Bureau? Yes. Was she considered such an effective advocate on behalf of consumers that Republicans refused to consider her as chief of that bureau? Yes, of course.

But none of those stories that tell us how a candidate can be expected to act in a role as President of the U.S. matter much to political reporters. In the "he said/she said" reporting world, how a candidate can be made to appear to have behaved in the past contrary to their professed goals is the only thing that matters because that type of reporting supposedly demonstrates the reporter's political "objectivity". Such is the safe space in which so-called objective reporters and their editors choose to dwell. But this information is useless to any citizen who is affected by the choices that the president, Senators, Congresspersons and other officeholders make, just as reporting everything the president tweets because it is alleged news is also useless.

The original Boston Globe headline was "Warren Disclosed Past as Corporate Advocate". Yes, Elizabeth Warren's claims about herself and her consistent actions in government should all be ignored because of her shady past.

After some hubbub on twitter, the headline was changed to "Warren assisted dozens of corporations as a bankruptcy advocate".  Now it reads "Warren discloses past corporate legal work". Who knows what the headline will read in a few minutes?

The article tells us "The issue of Warren’s corporate legal work reared its head during her 2012 race, when Republican Senator Scott Brown highlighted her advocacy for the insurance company Travelers in 2009 and other corporations as an example of hypocrisy from the populist candidate."

That's the he said/she said safe place. Scott Brown said such-and-such. Elizabeth Warren defends her shady past. That is how he said/she said journalism works - by distorting reality into an illusory world of two equal and opposite sides, no matter the stark differences between those two sides.

As a result, reporting on Trump falls far short of effectively presenting the egregiousness of Trump's actions as president which are treated as individual items to be compared with other presidents or democrats and thereby softened. On the other hand, actions by democrats are placed under a stark lens in a desperate attempt to depict them, too as "hypocritical" or otherwise inconsistent in their behavior.

In this magical realm, when Bernie Sanders changes his tune from decrying "Millionaires and billionaires" to "Billionaires" on the heels of reports of his wealth amounting to $2.5 million, he is somehow less of a populist figure - how can a man who is a millionaire be truly populist? Isn't he being hypocritical? That is nonsense. First of all, never mind the book deal, Sanders has worked for salary nonstop until current age 77, an age when many Americans have been drawing down a retirement for many years. Someone who has been able to add to savings rather than draw down those savings should be in a position to accumulate wealth. To many Americans, that $2.5 million sounds like a lot of money, but for someone making his Congressional salary all these years it is fairly modest. But, again, this is a safe space for reporters who need to demonstrate their so-called objectivity.

Political reporters need to let go of the breaking news mentality that feeds their inclination to overreact to any sign of '"hypocrisy" and ask themselves every day - what do I need to tell citizens so that they can make the best informed choices when they vote or contact their representatives? Not, what is the most exciting story of the minute.