Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Art of the Frame

George Lakoff tells us that Republican strategists are the masters of messaging. They understand the importance of being the first to frame an idea. Repeating the idea over and over - "Lyin' Ted" - crowds out competing thoughts, or any rational thinking for listeners who are so inclined.

But there is another side to the art of the frame.

In "Khashoggi’s Disappearance Puts Kushner’s Bet on Saudi Crown Prince at Risk", NYT reporters show that they do not understand the vulnerability of their outdated journalistic standards to inadvertent framing that they employ. If you try too hard to be "objective" to avoid framing as illegitimate, you create a frame of legitimacy.

Anyone who has paid attention to the emerging story of the Trump administration and the relationship with repressive regimes comes to the story with the following perspective:

Authoritarians have felt emboldened to ratchet up their authoritarian behavior with Trump in the White House, especially those who feel close to him.  Putin seems to be murdering political opponents with greater frequency and brazenness. That includes his stated enemies in the press.

The Trumps have not hesitated to use their position for personal financial gain. In fact, personal financial gain appears to be the primary goal. So it would not be surprising if the Trump administration would use Kushner's title of negotiator of peace in the Middle East as a cover for business initiatives aimed at financial gains for the Trumps.

In the NYT story about the relationship between Kushner and the Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the writers apply a journalistic standard peculiar to the Times that says - anything germane to the story that has not been proved with verified evidence beyond a reasonable doubt should be completely omitted from the story lest the reader be left with a false impression.

By not providing this context - suspicions that a reasonable person may have - in this case, the fact that a strong personal and business relationship between the Trumps and the Saudi Royal Family, has emboldened Bin Salman to murder Khashoggi, (after all, the non-propaganda press in general and the Washington Post in particular have been designated enemies of Trump) the NYT frames the story more as a Saudi scandal that may damage Kushner's foreign policy"bet". So we are not talking about a family that has run a widespread corrupt business enterprise for years, evading taxes, most likely money laundering, and so on. No, we are talking about Jared Kushner, a young man like Bin Salman, who is interested in peace in he Middle East. Never mind stories like this:

Saudi Arabia's crown prince reportedly bragged about having Jared Kushner 'in his pocket' after being told classified information meant for Trump
OR this:
Top Trump fundraisers who sought to negotiate $1 billion in business deals with Middle East princes called Jared Kushner a 'Clown Prince'

which includes the line: "And US officials told The Washington Post in February that UAE officials had discussed ways to manipulate Kushner using his "complex business arrangements, financial difficulties, and lack of foreign-policy experience" as leverage."

Even today's WaPo, in a story - Crown prince sought to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him, U.S. intercepts show  - focused not on the relationship between Kushner and Khashoggi, but on the man's disappearance, includes the following line:
"Kushner’s relationship with Mohammed, known within national security agencies by the initials MBS, has long been the subject of suspicion by some American intelligence officials."

The frame of the Times story is clear. This is a legitimate presidential administration and Jared Kushner is a legitimate Middle East negotiator, not someone who is badly compromised. Nothing in the story talks about Kushner's inability to obtain a security clearance (other than by father-in-law fiat.)

Based on the actions and inaction of this administration over the past two years, a reasonable person would now conclude that members of Congress will raise a stink over this murder of a dual American/Saudi citizen who worked for the Washington Post, but the Trumps will do nothing while calculating just how much they need to keep up appearances that they care or are willing to do something.

How soon will Trump use his infantile Russian technique - " I am tough on the Saudis. Hillary was always easy on the Saudis".

And why not? It works every time, because every statement Trump makes, instead of being immediately identified as a weapon of deception, is instead treated as a possible statement of fact that needs to be accepted as possibly true (thus sustaining the frame of possible truthfulness), and made subject to fact checking (as a first step into the wilderness of confusion) along with comparisons to Obama or Clinton (thus locking the door on any meaningful understanding with the death knell of false balance).

Friday, September 7, 2018

NYT Opinion as News

The NYT frequently inverts news articles and opinion pieces these days. The recent story "Some of the Democrats grilling Judge Kavanaugh have their eye on the White House" by Sheryl Gay Stolberg (also running under "Democrats Grilling Kavanaugh Have Their Eyes on 2020").

The alternate headlines frame the piece quite nicely. The times has been running articles calling the Kavanaugh nomination approval by the Senate basically a done deal. So the Times logic goes something like this:

Republicans have control of the Senate and will approve Kavanaugh without question. (This despite the narrow 51-49 margin by party.)
Since Kavanaugh is a done deal, any visible attempts to derail the nomination are a sham.
As for Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, they can not stop Kavanaugh, so they are just showboating.

If Senators just give up, their failure is a certainty. If there is any hope at all, don't they need to do everything they can to stop Kavanaugh. And doesn't it make more sense to frame their effort as a big victory if they succeed, but if they fail, then they have highlighted the concerns about Republican Supreme Court (and lower courts) nominees effectively for the 2018 Congressional elections?

But at the Times, where forced balance is established doctrine, politicians can always be presumed looking out for themselves. Besides, presidential races are exciting! All of these other races are so boring. I really don't care, do u?

The Times story which they present at a news item, rather than opinion is actually an opinion piece pretending to be a news story. It stems from a bias at the Times to see the world through a self imposed prism which is almost as bad in some ways at the Fox worldview.

A very different story could have been written. For me, the big news was the Cory Booker found a way to deflect the best efforts of John Cornyn, chair of the committee, to read him the "riot act" about Senate expulsion for his release of a handful of Kavanaugh documents. Cornyn's threat was actually an empty threat, but a framing tactic to label Booker as almost criminally out-of-order, in fact, so terrible that he could be punished and expelled from the Senate.  Booker's open and immediate defiance was likely unexpected because team Cornyn's empty threat was shown to be a charade. So Cornyn was left to apparently falsely deny that the documents were still confidential and therefore there was no basis to expell Booker. But of course he had openly stated that Booker's actions could lead to expulsion, which had Cornyn simultaneously holding contradictory positions.

And so we continue to see Republicans threaten and attack democratic institutions as Democrats and some Republicans who do not hold elective office fight back. Republican officeholders continue to act in bad faith, often with lies and obfuscation, as they consolidate their hold on power with Trump at the center of the Party.

Not surprisingly, Paul Waldman provides his rebuttal in a WaPo opinion column, from a slightly different perspective, to wit:
"But thinking about politics — including how Democratic presidential primary voters might respond to the Kavanaugh nomination and the Supreme Court, in general — is exactly what these politicians ought to be doing. Politics is how we settle the most vital questions that confront us as a nation. And if the process of choosing and confirming Supreme Court justices was ever removed from politics, it certainly isn’t now. What’s wrong with Democrats, or Republicans for that matter, raising the issues they think their constituents care about?"

The main point here is that the Times sorting of articles into news and opinion categories is not working any more and has not worked for a long time. This Stolberg alleged news piece is clearly an opinion piece by any objective measure, but it is labeled news solely because the opinions of the author are forced into the newsy frame that "both sides" really only care about running for president in 2020.

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".
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.

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.

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.


(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.

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"
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.