Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tactic of the Day: In a coverup, answer a Question that was not asked

From the White House briefing today:
Jonathan Karl's question and Sean Spicer's answer today. Karl asks about Flynn contacts with the Russians before the election, quite clearly, but Spicer pivots to talk only about the time after the election - because he does not want to address the period of the campaign contacts with Russia. Then, upon followup, Spicer garbles his gobbedlygook into a nonsense answer that was left unchallenged. The clear implication is that no one at the White House wants to talk about their contacts with Russia during the campaign.

"Q Back in January, the President said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now, today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?

MR. SPICER: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period -- well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did speak with the ambassador --

Q I’m talking about during the campaign.

MR. SPICER: I don’t have any -- there’s nothing that would conclude me -- that anything different has changed with respect to that time period."

What is that supposed to mean? It was a Yes or No question.

Blaming Obama

Only a couple of weeks ago Sean Spicer blamed Obama for the Muslim ban (not a ban, not a ban...).

For Trump and Republican strategists the goal is to avoid accountability for your own actions by framing them as events similar to events that occurred during a Democratic administration. If something bad happens, it is always the fault of Democrats. If something good happens, Republicans take credit.

Republicans are adamant that Michael Flynn should not be investigated further. The ties to Russia need not be investigated, despite the resignation of kremlinophile Paul Manafort mid-campaign and now this.

Spicer's deflection away from Flynn today included the obligatory, blaming Obama:

As Politico reports “The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia,” Spicer said. “He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia. His ambassador to the United Nations, stood before the U.N. Security Council on her first day and strongly denounced the Russian occupation of Crimea.”

OK, nice claim, and we will see how toughness on Russia plays out on the world stage, but blaming Obama for Crimea does not answer the many legitimate questions about Flynn's closeness to Russia, and Manafort, and Rex Tillerson and what all this may have to do with the release of Democrats' hacked emails by Putin's Russia. Excuse me, "allegedly" by Putin's Russia. DDDA. Deny, deflect, distract, accuse.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

False Equivalence in His Hands

We have criticized the New York Times and other mainstream outlets of perpetrating false balance through the error of false equivalence (here and more generally here) , especially throughout election campaigns - bending over backwards trying to be fair, but ultimately being unfair in the process. Sure, they "speak truth to power" when the more aggressive candidate is elected, but at that point, it's too late.
The deny, distract, deflect, accuse tactic can be used to impose false equivalence to remove logic and therefore meaning from any discussion.
The O'Reilly (if a Republican president can't trust Fox news, who can he trust?) interview with DJT - O'Reilly told Trump that Putin is a killer. Trump's reply: 'You think our country is so innocent?' employs three tactics:
1. Rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is not a statement. A rhetorical question can be misleading, calculated to distract and confuse the issue, but is never, ever false. This highlights one more problem with fact checking as a solution to the failure of news media to professionally and faithfully report political news. DJT could choose to only speak in questions. Unfactcheckable. What do you do? Shrug your shoulders? No. You do this. The Twittersphere erupted with varying interpretations of the Trumpian intent, but that's the point. A feature, not a bug.
2. False Equivalence. DJT thus vaguely equates Putin and Putin's Russia with the U.S. The details are left to the listener, but the implication is clear. The specifics - Putin's brutal murder of journalists and political opponents, including cruel and cynical poison murders -  is turned into a more general, open-ended and vague comparison. He is like us in some way. But the important differences between Putin and U.S. presidents, at least prior to 2017, is removed by this rhetorical trick from further discussion.
3. Pivot from the specific to the general. Watch carefully how often a specific topic (Putin kills people) is turned into a generality by the Trump White House in support of the deny/deflect stage of the rhetorical strategy. Wait a second...I thought we were talking about Putin? Watch how vigorously Trump deflects discussion when the subject turns to Putin. I am guessing he has his reasons.

What is the problem with following the rule of journalism that stipulates the practice of false balance?
False balance/false equivalence knocks the wind out of the sails of valid criticism of a politician during a campaign or of a political leader once elected. Suppose we live in a world where Republican presidential candidates have followed a pattern of increasing tendency to
(1) avoid direct discussion of issues, instead
(2) speak in code, and, when elected
(3) hollow out cabinet departments by turning the original mission of the department on its head.

By comparing DJT actions at every turn with Obama actions, such an increasing pattern would be impossible to deduce and criticism is neutered. Once you have framed DJT actions as "just like Obama", which you can achieve on every action if you try hard enough, you have pre-defined your narrative to be "all politicians are alike", which is one more yellow brick on the road to post-truth, post-reality America.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Bowling Green Massacre

George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, argues for an applied taxonomy to explain Trump Tweets.

This taxonomy aligns closely with our previous discussion of Trump's key tactic when questioned by reporters --- deny, deflect, distract, accuse (DDDA). The perfect example was the sinister birtherism lie .
Our mainstream press allows the more aggressive candidate or officeholder establish the frame. Hillary Clinton was not aggressive, so a questioner like Matt Lauer or Chris Wallace could easily establish the frame, to paraphrase, "How could someone as terrible as you consider yourself qualified to be president?". Trump would follow the DDDA pattern or just swat the question away - "I don't talk about that anymore."
Lakoff's recent interview in Salon hits the nail on the head. Speaking of the Enlightenment reasoning of Descartes:
"So what he [Descartes] said, basically, was that there are no frames, no embodiment, no metaphor — none of the things people really use to reason. Moreover if we think logically and we all have the same reasoning, if you just tell people the facts, they should reason to the same correct conclusion. And that just isn’t true. And that keeps not being true, and liberals keep making the same mistake year after year after year. So that’s a very important thing."

In that interview, he proceeds to identify the Trump success on the level of metaphor and to explain what progressives need to do to frame issues.

But, at least in this discussion, Lakoff does not identify what mainstream journalists need to stop doing. They need to stop fact checking. That's right. Fact checking is playing into hand of the speaker who controls the narrative and who cares not at all about whether a statement is true or false or nuanced. Each fact check by a journalist sends the media down into the mine of data. The award of Pinocchios is ignored by everyone. And then there is another statement to fact check.

In a way, the strategy of sending journalists into fact checking mode and falsely accusing an opponent like HRC so that journalists pepper her with questions about the accusation - accepting the frame - is the true massacre of 2016. The massacre of truth. The Real Bowling Green Massacre.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Statistics Watch

The American Statistical Association  warns in "ASA, with Statistical Community, Watching Carefully for the Integrity of Federal Statistical Data" about the imminent danger.
"Known and trusted as objective, federal statistical data form the backbone of policymaking and decisionmaking in the public and private sector." 
The competition between informed decisions and misinformed decisions sure has heated up.
The ASA post lists many articles of interest in other publications.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Foreign Or Domestic Threat

So scary that any person or group working to destabilize the U.S., whether foreign or domestic, would, as an integral part of a carefully conceived plan of attack, want to ensure that Donald Trump remains in office as president of the U.S. after such an attack is launched.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Full Court Press

In "Democrats 'Strategic Choice: How Aggressive to be on Gorsuch?" the headline is off the mark. This is about a stolen seat, not the particular nominee. McConnell, ever the tactician,  understood how to manage the narrative. Hold no hearings. When you employ the stall on the Supreme Court nomination, people get tired of trying to focus on the same issue over long periods of time and back down.  People get tired of feeling anger and resentment. Just as the McConnell stall on legislation throughout Obama's two terms worked. The only major exception was the Affordable Care Act - effectively demonized as "Obamacare", itself a middle-of-the-road compromise between alternatives.
Republicans will now deflect attention away from principle to the nominee - Gorsuch. Republicans deflected attention away from the nominee - Garland to their fabricated and specious principle - "let's let the American people decide the next nominee."
Deflecting the narrative is a favorite tactic of Republican legislators - "'Senator Schumer is about to tell Americans that Judge Gorsuch kicks puppies and heckles piano recitals,' Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said in a statement Tuesday evening. “That’s hogwash.”'
Excuse me Senator, but that misses the point...intentionally, I might add.
Supreme Court Nominations and Scalia Successor highlight the importance of viewing this issue in game theory terms.