Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Stormy Nikki

We had a welcome "emperor's new clothes" moment this week after U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley went on the Sunday talk shows to announce the new Russia sanctions about to be implemented the next day, only to be thrown under the bus by the White House with a slap that Haley was "confused" according to would-be economist and TV personality Larry Kudlow.

Haley's retort "I don't get confused" was a refreshing departure from previous Trump administration lackeys who supposedly complain in private, but are reluctant to speak in realistic terms in public - even after they resign.

Kudlow was forced to walk back his comment and apologize, but why? Well, Haley's immediate push back showed that she, too, could be unpredictable and possibly loyal to the U.S. She was not necessarily a reliable member of the president's mafia of close family members, TV personalities, and others with close ties to Russia. Haley was signaling that if the press continued to ask her legitimate questions about the Russia sanctions, she might insist on speaking her mind and answering honestly. Not a welcome result for this administration.

If those Russia sanctions are not implemented, it would be even more refreshing to see her put self and country over Trump and party and fight back harder.

How about let's have a future tweet:

Nikki HaleyVerified account @nikkihaley May 25

@ReallDonaldTrump: I hereby resign as Ambassador to the United Nations effective immediately. Hope you are not on the toilet, sir.

The Slow Turn to Reality Based Journalism

In The Democrats Are the Party of Fiscal Responsibility David Leonhardt writes that Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility, but they are not. Not only that, but as Leonhardt continues:

"Ever so slowly, conventional wisdom has started to recognize this reality. After Ryan’s retirement announcement last week, only a few headlines called him a deficit hawk. People are catching on to the con.

But there is still a major way that the conventional wisdom is wrong: It doesn’t give the Democratic Party enough credit for its actual fiscal conservatism."

What is this "conventional wisdom" of which he writes? Why it is the inevitable outcome of both sides journalism which has been a staple of NYT journalism basically forever.

Leonhardt, the NYT opinion writer is, one could say, "shocked, shocked that both sidesism has been going on here at the NYT." though he prefers to call this "conventional wisdom" or, most glaringly "the culture of bothsidesism."

Leonhardt has written about bothsidesism previously, so this is nothing new. But his persistent resistance to recognizing asymmetry between the behaviors of Republican and Democratic party operatives is alarming. He deserves recognition for documenting the pattern of Republican adminstrations that run up deficits vs. Democratic administrations that reduce deficits.

After presenting the case, Leonhardt wraps it up thus:
"So it would certainly be false to claim that Democrats are perfect fiscal stewards and that Republicans are all profligates. Yet it’s just as false to claim that the parties aren’t fundamentally different. One party has now spent almost 40 years cutting taxes and expanding government programs without paying for them. The other party has raised taxes and usually been careful to pay for its new programs.

It’s a fascinating story — all the more so because it does not fit preconceptions. I understand why the story makes many people uncomfortable. It makes me a little uncomfortable. But it’s the truth."

Notice the necessary nod to the "Democrats aren't perfect" as if we don't know that and need to hear it. Does Fox News attack Democrats and then say "Republicans aren't perfect". I don't think so.

But the big problem with this piece is there at the end:

"I understand why the story makes many people uncomfortable. It makes me a little uncomfortable."

Sorry, but that is a ridiculous statement that screams out that Mr. Leonhardt is OK with propagating a so-called "culture of false balance" even as he criticizes it. Because, not only are the tactics of Republican party operatives unlike those of Democratic operatives in significant ways, some of those Republican party tactics rely on acting in bad faith without regard to the truth as a central strategy AND those reprehensible tactics gain greater success precisely because the reality based journalistic institutions like the NYT are so reluctant to recognize and report on patterns of behavior that go against their own false premise that "both sides do it" in equal and opposite ways on all occasions.

Publications that are considered "liberal", like New York Magazine and Washington Monthly, among others, have been documenting false balance for some time as has NYT columnist Paul Krugman. The Times slow turn to recognize patterns of behavior as facts that need to be considered part of a truthful narrative due to the Times' adherence to the doctrine of false balance has meant that the so-called "liberal' journals have been faithful to the truth, and the Times, by bending over backwards to appear objective, has missed one of the big political stories of the past three decades.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Trump Believers

Jonathan Chait is on to something in I'm a Peeliever and You Should Be Too.

And you should be too. On to something that is.

Chait sets forth 5 reasons to believe the pee tape is real. But the point is not whether or not there is a pee tape with compromising images of Trump, or some other tape. Assuming that Russia has first hand evidence of collaboration with Trump going back years, they don't really need such a tape.

But there is a certain fascination with this one item in the Steele dossier.

Public controversy over the dossier (which is not a dossier, but a compilation of raw intelligence) has taken the form of our usual political debates.

For Trump and his defenders, if any allegation in the dossier is false, then all of the allegations in the dossier are false. This is, of course a logical fallacy. But logical fallacies are the currency of the realm.

Like Chait, I too was originally skeptical of the pee tape. The claim did not fit in with the tone and substance of other items in the dossier and seemed like a possible planted item, perhaps by a Russian operative who suspected or learned other Russians were leaking information to Steele. Whatever.

But one aspect of the pee tape stood out. When an accusation is leveled at Trump, his immediate reaction is to deflect attention away from himself. Deny, deflect, distract and, often accuse. Accuse Hillary. Accuse Obama. And so on.

Surprisingly, Trump kept the attention on the pee tape by offering evidence to demonstrate why the accusation was false. That behavior by Trump was shocking. Yet few, if any, news organizations caught on. Trump's failure to distract attention attention signals an important difference about the pee tape. Perhaps the accusation is true. Or, not true, but there is an underlying truth that the Russian government has different recorded evidence of misbehavior by Trump showing more disgusting behavior.

And, as a matter of interest, Trump reacted surprisingly to another Steele "dossier" allegation, presenting "evidence" that Michael Cohen never went to Prague in the summer of 2016 because he had examined Cohen's passport himself (never mind that Cohen could have multiple passports or that Cohen could travel to Prague on the ground and not have a passport stamp. The fact of Trump presenting "evidence" rather than dismissing the allegation out of hand is a tell, a giant red flag.

And now, apparently, there may be evidence that Cohen went to Prague after all.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

What to Call a Counterprotester

What do the following headlines have in common?

"Demonstrators who brought guns and an opposing message 'shoot back'"

"Supporters of the Second Amendment staged counterprotests in state capitals and city centers"

They both introduce the same March 24, 2018 news article in the NYT, only varying depending on the format of the device used to access the article.

The first headline is fairly objective. But the second one uses a charged term that the gun people prefer when referring to their movement.

If the counterprotesters are "supporters of the second amendment", that would strongly suggest that the primary protest could be described as "opponents of the second amendment". But the truth is more complicated. The counterprotesters can be described as opponents of an assault weapons ban or opponents of restrictions on guns, but labeling them with the catchall term "supporters of the second amendment", while economical, casts the gun people as those on the constitutional high ground and the people in favor of reasonable restrictions on guns as somehow advocating illegality.

The NYT, as a purportedly liberal news organization, leans toward letting conservatives define themselves in order to maintain the appearance of objectivity. But this avoidance of faithfully reporting the news based on facts in context is a consistent point of failure.

In a similar vein, instead of reporting statements made by Trump and Republicans accurately, the Times will instead report that "Trump believes..." or "Ryan believes...". So, in any case where Trump or Ryan makes a tactical statement about policy that they do not actually believe, the Times takes them for their word. This faulty approach by the Times lends support to politicians who lie for effect.

More to come on this tactic and flawed reporting.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

First Comes the Facts, Then Comes The Story

One portion of Glenn Simpson's Senate Judiciary Committee testimony of August 22, 2017 about the research performed on Trump/Russia in 2016 caught my eye:

"Generally speaking, when we do a research project for a new client and they ask us -- you know, they explain, you know, what situation they're involved in, if it's a lawsuit, for example, or some other dispute, a lot of what we do is related to disputes, they say -- you know, we say we will conduct an open-ended inquiry that's not goal directed and the results of the research will guide whatever decision you want to make about how to use it. So the range of possibilities with, you know, research are you could file a lawsuit, you could put it in a court filing, you could take it to a government agency, you could give it to Congress, you could give it to the press, but you don't really prejudge, you know, how you're going to use information until you know what you've got. So we generally don't let our clients dictate sort of the -- you know, the end result of things because we don't think that's an intelligent way of trying to do research and, you know, a lot of what we do is decision support. Your clients are frequently trying to make a decision about how they want to proceed, whether they want to -- you know, if someone thinks they've been defrauded, you can file a lawsuit, you can go to the police. You would decide that based on what you find out about the, you know, evidence of a fraud. So that's generally the way we do it."

As a former consultant, I can say that makes perfect sense. The skill set of Simpson, himself a former reporter, to research and uncover information, to understand and compose a sensible, meaningful narrative derived from the credible details differs dramatically from the skill set to take facts, cherry-pick the ones that can be twisted to serve your purpose, ignore the inconvenient facts, and compose a false and misleading narrative. The latter is not consulting. It's marketing - and, when it is all lies, distortions, and false accusations, a pretty dismal form of marketing at that.

What is astounding in the current environment is that:

-Republicans in Congress can get away with trashing Steele and his work without completely betraying their awful gamesmanship, or that

-Trump maintains support of any Republicans besides the newly engaged "deplorables" of the 2016 campaign, based on his long history of lies and distortions and composing false narratives.

My Team Your Team

"Hero or hired gun? How a British former spy became a flash point in the Russia investigation" reads the headline in the Washington Post.

What could be wrong with that? Two sides to every issue.

First of all, the headline is a distortion. In a different universe, more like the world in 2010, Republicans and Democrats alike would have been concerned (and were concerned) about Russian active spying operations in the U.S. When the "Illegals Program" was uncovered and arrests were made, no Republican was saying - "How do we know these people are really spies? The Obama administration is biased."

But that was then. This is now.

I have read hundreds of pages of detail in testimony and articles about Steele and the so-called dossier. The relevant material does not call him a "hero". Chalk that up to our media compulsion to call people heroes. But why in this case?

Context matters. Who is Christopher Steele? He was the head of the Russia desk for U.K. Intelligence agency, MI6, before retiring. So he is a professional who has great contacts and tremendous expertise at ferreting out the truth about Russia.

The rational:
Steele was hired as a consultant to research Trump's close relationship with high place Russians.
Steele possesses the expertise to perform faithful research on this issue.
The credibility and professional reputation of Steele as a consultant requires faithfulness to the truth.
The findings of Steele or any researcher can be made the subject of distortions and cherry-picking by anyone acting in bad faith for political purposes, but such actions do not and would not impugn the integrity of Steele's work.
The research by Steele could also be made subject, at least in part, to attempts by Russian agents to provide bad information, but not only is Steele expert on assessing sources and information, but the information he provided in the dossier has held up remarkably well to severe scrutiny, especially given the raw nature of the intelligence in the document.

Calling Steele a "hired gun" and therefore potentially unreliable does not pass the smell test. That charge conflates two different types of operations: Consulting as research and Consulting as marketing. The conflation is intentional on the part of the accusers, acting in bad faith to the truth. Marketing would be the work of someone like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone.

If WaPo wanted to tell us "How a British former spy became a flash point in the Russia investigation", they would be better off telling us - every issue related to politics is treated by us as a he said/she said debate between two equal and opposite sides, with the truth left to the reader based on his or her own presumed bias.

Christopher Steele is a lifelong British subject. Any reasonable person would assume that he does not normally care about American politics. Why would Steele care about U.S. domestic policy? Even on foreign policy, his concerns would exist at a high level where, at least traditionally, in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats normally agree on such matters as the importance of the Western alliance. But if a candidate for the U.S. presidency seemed to be under the thumb of the Russian government, Steele would surely be horrified and anxious to share that intelligence. In normal times, we would not call that bias.

Yet this turn of events leads to headlines that read "Hero or hired gun?" which is misleading. Steele became a "flashpoint" due to the necessity of one "side" to discredit the intelligence he has provided.
Efforts to discredit him line up with a growing list of distinguished and credible experts including Robert Mueller who must be vilified for the current administration and their lackeys in Congress to prevail.

Put differently, with Trump as president, accusations of bias become a.most a tautology when speaking about anyone who opposes an adversarial foreign power imposing its will on the United States.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Middle Ground is Unsafe

Josh Marshall makes an important point in The GOP and Big Lie Politics:

"The biggest impact of the Nunes Memo – and the accompanying wave of propaganda – is that conventional news and commentary is incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere. This is a pattern we’ve seen again and again. It’s one of the hallmarks of this political age. It’s worth saying it again: conventional media is not equipped to deal with willful lying in the public sphere."

In this piece on Talkingpointsmemo, Marshall distinguishes between Fox's propagandistic reporting and reality-based reporting.  His first example of faulty reality-based coverage is Chris Cillizza . We have called out problems with Cillizza's reporting in Running on Empty and Confusion about Confusion. The problem with Cillizza is a tendency to lean to the middle in his analysis, which is similar to false balance.  False balance dictates that if you have a story that presents a narrative that seems to favor an outlook that is more to the left, then, as an "objective" reporter, you need to offer up your own arguments that might come from the "other side", regardless of  your own assessment of the reality. So it is a matter of saying - "here is the story from the left, but here is the story from the right." And the implication for the reader is OK, here are two stories and you decide which is faithful to the truth.

The problem with Cillizza is, like some other pundits, the inclination to head straight to a narrative that hugs the middle - sort of like the "Third Way".

TPM quotes Cillizza on CNN today:

"I think ultimately – I’m actually with [former Trump advisor Jason Miller] in that – I don’t know that either of these [memos] are the smoking gun that either side wanted. I know conservatives insist the Nunes memo – I shouldn’t lump them together – some conservatives think the Nunes memo, now that it has been released, proves once and for all that everything is totally fine and that Donald Trump is exonerated. I don’t think that’s so. I don’t think the Schiff memo is going to say, oh, my gosh, here it is, the smoking gun we have been waiting for."

But that mischaracterizes the reality by presenting a case of two dueling memos that start equally out of the gate, are both to be taken seriously on their own terms, and then the public decides what to believe based on these memos. The Democrat's memo was only necessitated by the Nunes memo. Democrats did not want to have to write any such memo. They are concerned with the danger of releasing classified information solely for rank political purpose. Nunes, of course, had to recuse himself early in the investigatory process when he was caught collaborating with the White House even as he was charged as head of the committee with leading the investigation. And so on. In this environment, Cillizza feels compelled to navigate to the middle.

TPM does not quite capture the worst problems with Cillizza, but Marshall's explanation of the problem of the reality-based press is expressed well, reading in part:

"This is actually quite black and white. There’s no evidence of politicized intelligence or law enforcement or counter-intelligence work at all. Actually not any. All the evidence is based on false claims, logical fallacies or intentionally misleading representations of how standard law enforcement procedures work. There’s also a high brow version of this which redirects the conversation toward longstanding and legitimate concerns about whether the FISA system is consistent with the rule of law in the first place. This is a grave error which only confuses the situation and makes general considerations about the rule of law into a tool of someone trying to trample on it."

By insisting on balance in reporting or, as in the Cillizza case, reporting directly from the middle as somehow representing the "safe ground", reality-based reporters, even while acting in good faith, fail miserably because bad actors - think Fox News - can so easily outmaneuver their definition of objective journalism.

Another recent example of the weakness of the objective journalists is illustrated by the NYT piece:

How Our Reporter Uncovered a Lie That Propelled an Alt-Right Extremists Rise

Despite recent history the Times still believes that calling out a lie matters - in this case, a neo-nazi's lie claiming military service in Iraq and doubling down on the lie when caught (remind you of anyone?) As if that matters. The nazi's followers are supposed to care about the lie and, what, ask him about it? Stop following him? Stop being neo-nazis? Sorry NYT, that is not how this works.  He got himself a profile in the Times. That's all that matters.

What did the Times expect?

The Times reporter tells us:

I had pictured the phone call going a lot of different ways, but I hadn’t quite prepared for this.

I thought he might swear at me and then hang up. Maybe he would try to turn the conversation around, attacking me and the credibility of The New York Times. Or maybe he would become contrite and emotional, and finally answer some real questions. But I never thought he would just deny it."

Contrite and emotional? Really?

Unfortunately, at the NYT, reporters are slow learners. They have been so steeped in their belief of a rational universe, that they can not believe that the world is populated by vast numbers of basically irrational people who begin with a strongly held belief and then collect facts (or lies, it doesn't matter which) to support that belief and who feel free to rely on logical fallacies to inform their views.

Will the NYT ever learn? Will Chris Cillizza? Not likely. Not any time soon.