Friday, December 14, 2018

Innocent Explanations

"Trump Inaugural Fund and Super PAC Said to Be Scrutinized for Illegal Foreign Donations" reads the NYTimes headline. The second paragraph raises alarm bells for anyone who has paid attention to the Trump team ties to the various factions on the Saudi peninsula:

"The inquiry focuses on whether people from Middle Eastern nations — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — used straw donors to disguise their donations to the two funds. Federal law prohibits foreign contributions to federal campaigns, political action committees and inaugural funds."

Makes you think about the secret meeting during the interregnum when Erik Prince just "happened" to be in the Seychelles along with Saudi and Russian operatives. And Jared Kushner's close ties to bin Salman. And the shifting sands of U.S. policy toward the Saudis and Emirates vis-a-vis Qatar. Have those two sides been in a bidding war fostered by the family Trump to obtain favorable U.S. policies? And who really bailed out the Kushner family investment in 666 Fifth Avenue?

Now we heard about the excess Trump inauguration funds a long time ago, and we know that Trump lies all the time, which we normally associate with wrongdoing and attempts to cover up, and we know about actual hush money and have for a long time. But let's tread lightly here if we are the New York Times...

As the story builds and brings in Trump's billionaire friend Tom Barrack,  we are told:

'“Tom has never talked with any foreign individual or entity for the purposes of raising money for or obtaining donations related to either the campaign, the inauguration or any such political activity,” said Owen Blicksilver, a spokesman for Mr. Barrack.'

Wait. Tom has never "talked"? Why "talked"? "Talked" refers to the spoken word. Did he text or write a foreign individual, or work through an intermediary who happens to be an American - maybe his own Michael Cohen if he has one? Sort of reminiscent of "I have no business in Russia" which avoids the answer to the question, "But does Russia have business in you?"

They sort of go there, as shown below. But there's so much more:

"Prosecutors from New York and from Mr. Mueller’s team have asked witnesses whether anyone from Qatar or other Middle Eastern countries also contributed money, perhaps using American intermediaries. Among other issues, they asked about a Mediterranean cruise that Mr. Barrack and Mr. Manafort took after Mr. Manafort was fired in August 2016 from the Trump campaign because of a scandal over his previous work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Mr. Manafort was in serious financial trouble at the time, and Mr. Barrack, who has an extensive business network in the Persian Gulf, may have been attempting to help him find clients."

See what the NYT reporters did there in the last sentence {bold added]? They might as well write "There may be an innocent explanation to all of this. Maybe Mr. Barrack felt sorry for poor Mr. Manafort and was only trying to find him work after he got fired from the campaign."

Note how the reporters feel free to come up with their own innocent explanations for the behavior -- going beyond claims these individuals even make on their own behalf. This is related to the NYT policy that requires extreme caution when reviewing facts, lest speculation lead to unfounded conspiracy theories. But the result is unfounded non-conspiracy theories. Despite mounds of evidence that suggests otherwise, NYT reporters are required to tack toward the innocent explanation. The big problem with that is that these reporters create doubt about guilt that does not seem justified under any interpretation of the facts. A more reasonable conclusion would be that large amounts of money has flowed to team Trump through a variety of means that includes the inauguration fund and the super PAC Rebuilding America Now  (both mentioned in the NYT article), purchased of condos by Russians, and other possible money laundering. If the NYT is reluctant to document the preponderance of the evidence that suggests massive money laundering, they would do well to avoid speculation altogether.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pivot to the General

In "Agents of doubt :How a powerful Russian propaganda machine chips away at Western notions of truth" Joby Warrick and Anton Troianovski construct a powerful evidence-based narrative.

They begin the story with a compelling timeline graphic that separately documents the actions of Russian officials and Russian media alongside the contemporaneous events in Britain. As they point out "Russian media have disseminated as many as 46 false stories" about the Skripal nerve gas attack in Britain. And, using the projection method popular with certain elements in the West, "Moscow has repeatedly rejected [the] accusations, while suggesting that Britain is responsible for any confusion over what happened in the Skripal case."

The WaPo writers explain that the problem goes well beyond the attempted murders of the Skripals.

"Yet the same tactics that were observed in the wake of the Skripal poisoning have been employed multiple times since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, in each case following roughly the same script. When pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 passengers and crew members, Russian officials and media outlets sought to pin the blame on the Ukrainian government, suggesting at one point that corpses had been trucked to the crash site to make the death toll appear higher."

So far so good. Great reporting.

But the car goes off the road. Here we go:

"While many of the individual stories are easily debunked, the campaigns have had a discernible impact, as measured by opinion polls and, occasionally, public statements by Western politicians casting doubt on the findings of the intelligence agencies of their own governments. In October 2015, months after U.S. and European investigators concluded that Flight 17 had been brought down by a Russian missile fired by separatists, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told CNN that the culprit was “probably Russia” but suggested that the truth was unknowable."

Wait. Why are the authors suggesting that the doubt expressed by Donald Trump about Russian responsibility for the downing of Flight 17 is somehow a representative example of successful sowing of doubt by the Kremlin in presumed rational Western leadership? Surely the authors have noticed that Donald Trump leans heavily toward Russian in his public pronouncements and actions. And that a full scale Justice Department investigation of Team Trump ties to Russia is proceeding apace.

Notice that the authors avoided quoting Trump's nonstop "doubts" about  the findings of U.S. intelligence regarding Russia's avid support of candidate Trump in the 2016 election with the distribution of the hacked DNC emails. "It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

Unfortunately, the WaPo, similar to the NYT, employs the dubious standard - we only know what we know for sure and anything we suspect about a politician needs to be treated as false. As a result, the opposite of what we suspect needs to be treated as true. Therefore, if we suspect that Trump and his team collaborated actively with Russia (We actually know this, by the way, but, whatever), and we are trying to discuss the reaction of Western leaders to Russian propaganda, we do not know Trump's complicity for sure, so when Trump expresses doubt about the facts that contradict Russian propaganda, we can use Trump's expressions of doubt as a solid example of confusion in the West rather than as a clear example of collaboration with Russia to advance his own personal interests.

In other words, if journalists want to assume Trump may be innocent of any particular wrongdoing, even in the face of all available evidence, that does not justify a presumption that Trump is definitiely innocent. Assuming someone may be innocent does not mean the person is innocent and does not justify coming to conclusions that are only true if the person is innocent.

Adding insult to injury, from a journalistic perspective, this device of presumed innocence creates a false frame that Trump is definitely innocent of any collaboration with Russia, criminal or otherwise.

One indicator of the logical flaw shows up in the statement "public statements by Western politicians casting doubt on the findings of the intelligence agencies of their own governments." followed immediately by a single flawed example - Donald Trump. The logical fallacy here is the pivot to the general - drawing a general conclusion from a specific case where more careful objective analysis of the specific case would yield a different conclusion. This pivot from the specific to the general is often used by conservatives as a debating tactic to avoid reasonable evidence-based inferences. (more to come on that in future posts.)

As a journalistic failure, this logically flawed practice is related to the problem of minimalism given context in The Problem With Appearances. Reporters assume the best is true if they do not know for certain that the worst is true.

This is not the first time WaPo has employed this dubious journalistic standard that results in implied false conclusions. While WaPo has been head and shoulders above the NYT the past two years, this example is particularly egregious because Trump, together with Fox News, and in support of the Kremlin has been the key operative in the West to create as much confusion as possible about the facts. As a consequence, this journalistic breach, repeated yet again, is deserving of a "Bottomless Pinnocchio".

Monday, December 10, 2018

Doubling Down on Doubling Down

Jay Rosen succinctly prescribes one solution to the bafflement of the mainstream press in dealing with Trump:
"Don't let him be your assignment editor." (At 2:30.)

If only the fact checker at the Washington Post was paying attention.

Trump doubles down on lies all the time. The constant lying is a way to deny reality, distract from the malfeasance of his team, deflect attention from important issues to unimportant or irrelevant matters, and to accuse a political opponent or the press, usually falsely or in a grossly misleading way of doing some wrong thing.  Unfortunately, if there is the slightest veracity or mere appearance of relevance to Trump's false claim, our mainstream press feels compelled to analyze the Trumpian statement in excruciating detail. By that point, Trump has succeeded in derailing the press from their mission by controlling the narrative, the constant drumbeat that he uses to keep his supporters agitated, aggravated, on edge, and fearful or hateful as the case may be.

Thus, fact checking of Trump by the press makes no sense as a reporting method because it gives Trump exactly what he wants, helping him to achieve the goals of his communications effort - satisfying supporters and confusing some opponents.

Early on, the press was mystified by Trump's doubling down on his lies. Surely fact checking would expose Trump as a fraud (but we can't call him a fraud, despite the preponderance of the evidence - we are a free press, after all, who must recoil from anything that smacks as an opinion, even when the verifiable conclusions are clear.)

So what does the WaPo do after all these years of fact checking have proved insufficient to derail Trump's false narratives? When Trump doubles down, they double down too -- on fact checking!

Wapo calls their latest invention the "Bottomless Pinnochio". When four Pinnochios are not enough.

From the WaPo fact checker ---"Meet the Bottomless Pinocchio, a new rating for a false claim repeated over and over again"

How exactly does "bottomless Pinnocchio do anything that 5 or even 10 Pinnochios would not accomplish?

Any reader who is not convinced by four Pinnochios will not be convinced by a bottomless Pinocchio. And, by covering the lies in this manner, as statements that are considered with regard to their veracity instead of statements that Trump makes to deny, distract, deflect, and/or accuse, that is, statements that are made tactically, WaPo continues to fail to cover Trump responsibly ( or any politician who operates in bad faith) in the manner in which they deserve --- which is the coverage that the readership deserves.

See also: "Hothead But Not a Liar II - Tactics for Truth" for coverage of similar WaPo fact checking flaws and apt comments of  the linguist George Lakoff.
And for more about deny, distract, accuse and masterful narrative control, see:
Birtherism as a Service (BaaS)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

O Biased Fool!

The problems with mainstream media headlines are many.
Hears the title of an Opinion piece in WaPo:
Count me as one Democrat who thinks Trump made an excellent choice in William Barr

If that's what the writer believes, and the article makes a series of arguments, why don't the editors go with:
"Trump made an excellent choice in William Barr"

The original title implies - you, dear reader, may find the following article worth reading and the arguments more compelling because they are made by a member of one "side" who takes a position more common on the other "side".

But if a set of arguments is compelling, they need to stand on their own and by implying greater credibility of a writer's arguments based on resisting his own presumed bias, the editors of the WaPo are feeding the beast of false balance:

-There are two equal and opposite sides in politics.
-Everyone is either a Republican or a Democrat with biases.
-No one who is a Republican or a Democrat is able to be objective without submission to their own biases.
which, in the age of Trump as the apotheosis of Republican strategy over the past few decades has led to:
-All politicians lie sometimes.
-Trump is a liar, but Obama lied too.

Which is the place where nonsense reigns supreme. And in this particular case, if you, dear reader are a Democrat or vote for Democrats and oppose the nomination of William Barr, you do not have full standing to disagree with me, the writer of this piece, because I am admirably going against my natural biases just as you are succumbing to yours, O biased fool.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Election Security

The WaPo editorial board dishes us complete and utter nonsense in "The NRCC hack shows that election security is a bipartisan problem".

The big problem is the misframing of the issue.

The first sentence "PRESIDENT TRUMP may claim that Democratic incompetence was to blame for hacks of the party’s systems during the 2016 election."

Wait, why are we starting the discussion with a claim from the president who lies instinctively about every issue every day? Letting Trump set the framing of the issue is a complete mistake, but understandable if your WaPo antiquated editorial standards require you to take the view from nowhere.  The problem with that approach is that the lead nudges the reader to think about the claim - is it true? is it false? is it misleading? In what way might the claim make sense? But in light of the Russian cyberattacks on Democrats in 2016 that assisted with the installation of an increasingly authoritarian Republican regime, lending credence to the Trump claim by even mentioning it makes absolutely no sense.

WaPo editors, like the NYT editors , are inclined to view the world from a comfortable distance, with a presumed symmetry between two parties - Democrats and Republicans. (Incidentally, what would they do if there happened to be three large parties in the U.S.? Would the moderate party always be the right one and the other two always wrong when they disagreed with the middle path?)

The WaPo claim that "the NRCC hack shows that election security is a bipartisan problem" has its own problems.

What would WaPo have said four or five days ago, before the hack was revealed? It's a bipartisan issue, but we are waiting for a hack of Republicans to have "proof"?

What does WaPo mean by bipartisan problem?  Both "sides" should be able to agree because both "sides" have a strong interest in stopping hacking within the U.S. By now, WaPo editorial board should have learned that there are many issues where both "sides" have aligned interests, but somehow do not agree. WaPo would do better to try harder to understand and explain why it is so, instead of following the constant drumbeat that stems from an insistence on belief in two equal and opposite "sides" - that the world of America is divided into two equal and opposite parties that disagree most of the time, but can agree on compromise, if only they can put aside their differences.

Republicans in government found long ago that it suits their agenda to ignore actual discussion of policy issues and instead focus on winning through better marketing which meant taking down their political opponents with personal attacks that effectively distract attention from policy issues and arguments.

The WaPo editorial continues:
"It is, in fact, an issue for everyone in the United States, demanding a broad response from Congress and political actors across the board. 

Congress has done too little since 2016 to shore up election cybersecurity. Actions to increase the integrity of voting systems are regrettably stalled. Voting machines are not the only critical infrastructure under threat: There is no minimum federal standard for the cybersecurity of campaigns or parties, and there is no single dedicated agency responsible for overseeing how those organizations protect their information — or don’t. There’s a money problem, too: Without federal help, cash-strapped campaigns and state election systems lack the resources to guard themselves."

Congress has failed to act because Congress has been controlled by Republicans who benefited in 2016 from the Russian conspiracy of cyber attacks on the U.S. Setting that crucial fact aside ignores the larger problem that some Republican officeholders have purposely looked to the side while other Republicans actively participated in the attacks on the U.S. electoral system. Ignoring this stark fact with an appeal to "bipartisanship" in this editorial is complete nonsense.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Republicans Redefine Elections

"Stung by Election Losses, Republicans in the States Seek a Way to Neutralize Democrats" reads the NYT headline.
source: random house dictionary

"Stung by losses...". Think about the meaning of that purported objective news blurb.
Feeling hurt and sad, a little depressed perhaps - and only due to their hurt feelings, Republicans in the State legislatures that have a majority in the current lame duck session and, thanks to gerrymandering, in the upcoming legislative session, Republicans who received a minority of votes in certain states while maintaining a legislative majority, have passed laws that the current lame duck governor will sign, in order to eliminate gubernatorial powers that these Republicans want to deprive the newly elected governor - powers that the majority of voters were fine with - powers that these same Republicans were fine with, if and only if, the next governor was going to be a Republican.

Being "stung" asserts a feeling and that headline implies a cause and effect relationship. Only because of their hurt feelings, Republicans are doing things they might not otherwise do. The headline is subjective, not objective, a subjective thought that, according to NYT journalistic standards, belongs in an Opinion piece, not the headline to a hard news story. But the Times pulls back and casually observes each Republican step in its own solitary universe, without regard to a pattern of increasing anti-democratic behavior. How can we downplay this latest Republican maneuver in order to maintain our casual air of objectivity?

So voters in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan are denied the fruits of their ballots because Republicans are willing to act against the majority to change the laws that control the separation of powers - the very functioning of State government. Reps are only able to do this because the government has lame duck sessions as a means of assuring a smooth transition between legislatures. The existence of the lame duck is based on a basic trust,  the proposition that we are all in this together, that no one would think to take advantage of the lame duck to thwart the will of the people expressed at the ballot. But that is yet one more step in the destruction of a functioning democracy.

Feeling hurt, wounded and in pain, Republicans ....

Why not "Desperate to hold onto their minority rule and thwarting the will of the majority of voters, Republicans in the legislature are usingthe lame duck session...." ?

Republican tactics that are used to hold on to power are becoming more extreme. The more extreme and dangerous the tactics, the more the NYT news writers feel compelled to downplay the gravity of the threat to democracy, ostensibly because objective news writers must sound calm. But if you try harder to appear calm than you try to be accurate, you will find that it becomes too late to fix your reporting because it is too late to do anything to save functioning democracy.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Demonization as a Both Sides Thing

Joe Scarborough, who pilloried Hillary Clinton for years, had his own interesting twist on good people on “both sides” for his Thanksgiving moment:

But claiming “both sides” are hesitant to enter public service is off base in a few different ways.
Yes, effective office holders who are qualified to run for President on the Democratic ticket may be hesitant to run for fear of being demonized. But the Republican Party has demonstrated that you, too can win the Party nomination if you are unqualified, incompetent, corrupt, and adept at distracting voters from your sheer awfulness with obtuse, yet vicious demonization of your opponents. Scarborough’s tweet implies that this is a peculiarly trumpian phenomenon,  it Trump is simply the logical consequence of Republican electoral strategy over the course of several decades. And nothing suggests that we are ever going back. It would have been more accurate to suggest that good people can feel discouraged from running for the Democratic nomination for president and bad people can feel encouraged to run for the Republican presidential nomination.