Friday, October 20, 2017

When Will They Ever Learn

The New York Times continues to perpetuate the myth that the search for truth requires a balancing of a so-called right, a so-called left, and a center that is somehow between those two poles. No wonder we are so "polarized".

The NYT, always above the fray that envelops the rest of us poor folks, has a recent installment of their We report on Right, Left, Center - You Decide (my words, not theirs) on the Right and Left React to Trump's Condolence Call Controversy. 

But the question from the press in the Rose Garden a few days ago was not - "Why haven't you called the families?". The question was "Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the Soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?" It was the president who chose to place this in a context of condolences, invoking Obama,  that presses the hot buttons of the military families, which conveniently diverted away from sensitive issues of his policies and military tactics to execute those policies.

For example, most people had no idea we have ongoing military operations in that part of the world. As we learn about this special forces operation, the soldiers were leaving a meeting and the ambush seems to have been a trap, so they may have been betrayed.

What does that say about intelligence in that part of the world? 

We know that Chad announced an end to cooperation with the U.S. military in the fight against Boko Haram immediately following Chad being placed on the list of countries subject to the Trump administration travel ban. And that move against Chad seems to have been based on Chad missing the deadline for submission of passport documents to the U.S. for a security review.

How does that make us feel about the use of military contractors?

How does that make us feel about an arbitrary travel ban and other arbitrary decisions?

Many valid questions remain about the circumstances of the final hours and death of Sgt. La David Johnson,  the role played by government contractors and French forces. All of these factors call for serious discussion of policy. Instead, we find ourselves drawn to the basically irrelevant hot button issue of appropriateness of condolences and appropriateness of discussion of appropriateness of condolences. On that terrain, serious debate about policy can not survive. It can not even exist. And that's the goal of  DJT. Trump's instinct to sidetrack serious debate about policy wins the day yet again.

Had this been the Democrats, we know what would have happened because it did happen.

Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.

The New York Times editors with their right/left/center balance are still clueless about context. Just like during the campaign of 2016 and just as he has done all this year, Trump defines the subject to be debated. The story becomes what he says when the story should be about what he is doing. Trump instinctively kicks the story to campaign mode, but he is the president and the press needs to cover the actions and inactions of his campaign, not the daily bob and weave of tweets and invocation of Obama and Clinton, neither of whom is in government.

Trump controls the news cycle, moving it from the NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to the condolences for fallen soldiers. Once again, Trump wins by diverting attention.

When will the New York Times ever learn?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Janet Yellen Really?

President Trump is scheduled to meet today to interview Janet Yellen for renomination as Chair of the Federal Reserve. Article after article about the five leading candidates treats Yellen as a viable nominee, including the New York Times treatment "The Economy is Humming, But That May Not Win Janet Yellen Another Term" . That piece looks at pros and cons Trump may be considering. "Presidents in recent decades have generally decided to reappoint Fed chairmen, even from the opposing political party, on the theory that stability would comfort markets." reports the Times, which emphasizes the historical perspective, going back to Volker's chairmanship.
source: dailytelegraph

But Janet Yellen was appointed by one President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2014. Her chance of being nominated by Trump to remain in her post is 0.00% because Trump has signaled clearly in action after action as president that he wants more than anything to undo every action that Obama took while in office.

Yellen's chances are similar to Romney's chances of nomination to a post in the current administration following his visceral denunciation of Trump during the 2016 campaign. Romney had no chance when he met with the president-elect in Trump Tower a year ago. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

The basic irrationality and antagonistic posturing of Trump is intrinsically a key component of his decision making process that should not be ignored by news organizations who continue to pivot to a normalcy perspective on Trump - "No matter what he does, we need to report on every issue as if he might be normal this time, rather than consistent with his prior practice."

This would be a good time to abandon that practice once and for all.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Chris Hayes and Hillary Clinton had an interesting moment during yesterday's interview. Hayes asked Clinton whether (to paraphrase) she believed that she lost votes because Trump and Republicans had signaled that they would create scandal after scandal to bring her down as President, so that a vote for Clinton was a vote for endless scandals, even if constant investigations were not merited.

Clinton immediately responded, basically -- No, no. Her example was that Trent Lott vigorously opposed her as a prospective Senator, but after her term in the Senate, admitted that he had found her to be someone he could work with on legislation. So, the argument goes, she would be able to overcome scorched earth tactics.

These two viewpoints are not incompatible. Clinton may well have lost the votes of potential supporters who could not bear the prospect of ginned up 'scandals' throughout her presidency, as we have suggested in This Is Gonna Hurt You More Than It Hurts Me.

Chris Hayes' point may be correct. And Clinton may be correct that the efforts to make her presidency a failure as the primary goal may well have fallen short. But that would not have been for a lack of trying. It could be that after eight years of constant obstruction for obstruction's sake with Obama as president, Republicans in Congress could have been faced with an electorate that eventually caught on to their shenanigans over the next four to eight years. And who knows. The current political environment under Trump may be just what is needed for the Republican political gamesmanship to be recognized for what it is - unless the Republican tactics get lost in scandals of money laundering, collaboration with Russian spy agencies, and blackmail. In that case, Republicans would argue that Trump was an aberration, instead of the apotheosis of Republican strategy in politics over the past three decades.

Becoming Rational

James Hohmann (with Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve) contributes mightily to public dissection of the Trump phenomenon in The Daily 202: Why the divider in chief embraces culture wars.

Finally an article that shines the spotlight on the tools employed by Trump (and other traffickers of logical fallacies.)

"Trump ... has long been a builder of straw men...his chaotic approach to governing also depends on constantly presenting the American people with false binary choices."

Hohmann continues with a description of the recent week of Trump attacks on mostly black NFL players:  "Trump talks about the world in black-and-white terms: You’re either with him or against him."

That is actually two salient points in one sentence. As a black and white thinker, Trump's style appeals to black white thinking - never mind that we live in a world of shades of gray. And Trump has built his own world as dependent on unquestioning loyalty. If you are not loyal, you are fired.

After that, the key points continue to be made in bold:
"He is also looking for distractions." (Distractions divert attention from his incompetence and corruption."
"This is part of a pattern." (No kidding. Of course, this was the pattern last year too, but as a candidate, Trump was judged by mainstream media under the rule that if journalists observe a pattern of misbehavior, they must report using the rules of fair and balance - only the opponent of the candidate can make the observation of a pattern of misbehavior. Otherwise, the journalist is being 'biased'. Which is exactly how Trump got away with the misbehavior by being the more aggressive attacker. Observation of patterns of behavior is an important element of accurate factual reporting in context. Without a journalist's noting the pattern, the context is lost and we are left with competing "facts" in support of alternative narratives and no reliable method to discern truth from fiction.)

"Facing blowback over his false moral equivalency after the violence in Charlottesville, Trump embraced the cause of preserving historical statues." The piece continues with  "Employing the fallacy of the slippery slope, Trump warned that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson statues would come down next if statues to Stonewall Jackson are taken down."

So the authors take two more shots at the irrationality of faulty logic with "false moral equivalency" and the proverbial "slippery slope". If you don't have a credible argument against your opponent's position, argue against the supposed outcome.

"Picking fights with people like Kaepernick is Trump’s modus operandi. He thrives on feuds, and he likes setting up binary contrasts between himself and others." There you have it again - the world in black and white. No shades of gray.

"A similar dynamic was at play when Trump attacked the Broadway musical “Hamilton” last November after the cast read a statement to Mike Pence celebrating diversity"

The piece continues with other great insights and surmises that this could be Trump's  Army vs. McCarthy moment. Maybe, but not likely. For Trump is still controlling the narrative. He shines the spotlight where he wants it and will deflect away from the NFL at a moment's notice. Only when the mainstream media fails to take the bait of the daily tweetstorm will the distractions lose their power. Unfortunately, that result may require dramatic legal action by Mueller and his team.

The Washington Post has done a better job of producing insights on Trump (and Republicans) trafficking in logical fallacies. A significant portion of mainstream outlets, including much (but not all) of the New York Times reporting misses the purely tactical nature of the Trump posture.

One hopes that WaPo and other mainstream outlets will double down on their new rationality so much that whenever a politician says, for example,  "Obamacare is a disaster" (which Republicans use as their go to line about health care reform,) those politicians will be called out on the logical fallacy of invoking a frame --hating Obama -- while evading serious discussion of the issues.

And, more than anything else, we need the next election year to be marked by new journalism that recognizes patterns of behavior and reports on real context - context established by observation of clear patterns of behavior rather than he said/she said reporting without context. The true test for journalists will come when the current mode of speaking truth to power with Republicans having taken over all three branches of government and most state houses is replaced by the rules of campaign reporting.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When Old News is New Again

I am always suspicious when new news about an old story that has been beaten to death breaks in the midst of a separate and independent, but related event. Huh? What in the world does that mean?

Well, back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, before sensitivity to Cristobal Colombo's slave trading tendencies emerged, the annual Columbus Day celebration seemed to coincide with an amazing new discovery of a previously unknown mariner's map of the New World or some discovery about Leif Erickson. Newspapers would breathlessly report the amazing new find.

In Boston, the costliest art heist ever occurred in the early morning hours after St. Patrick's Day of 1990. The case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery of works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas  was never solved. Sure enough, what seems like every year, a sudden and promising break in the investigation occurs around St. Patrick's Day.  Just in time for breathless reportage.

And so it is no surprise, that the breaking story at Fox News shortly after the publication of Hillary Clinton's book about the 2016 campaign is none other than an "exclusive report" on Benghazi.

We do not know who the next Democratic Presidential nominee will be, but as 2020 draws closer, we know that Fox News will feature stories alleging heinous acts committed by that candidate.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Both Sides Over and Over

Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post "This week should put the nail in the coffin for 'both sides' journalism". That theme is echoed in several pieces, including Paul Waldman's "Sorry conservatives. There's no equivalence between the extreme right and the extreme left."

We have written about this problem many times, starting with "Both Sides Do It".

Tragically, someone had to die for more to see this problem and, ironically, the awful real life tragedy in Charlottesville where a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd and fled the scene exactly follows the scenario in Mann and Ornsteins's "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" (emphasis added):

"A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers. A prominent Washington Post reporter sanctimoniously told us that the Post is dedicated to presenting both sides of the story. In our view, the Post and other important media should report the truth. Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don't treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way. Whats the real story: Who's telling the truth? Who is taking hostages at what risks and to what ends?"

If knee jerk liberalism is bad and knee jerk conservatism is bad, then knee jerk journalism that seeks out balance between two sides, no matter the circumstances in a particular case, is even worse. For both sidesism leads directly to false balance that yields false equivalence noted in "False Equivalence in His Hands". The argument is not that Republicans are bad and Democrats are good. Nor that conservatives are bad and liberals are good. The argument is that adherence to knee jerk journalistic false balance in objective news media creates a loophole that is exploited by conservatives to create false narratives and leads to the successful propagation of fake news, that is, real fake news, in conservative media. In other words, by bending over backwards to maintain an appearance of impartiality, these mostly liberal media outlets have inadvertently made themselves partial, not impartial.

But wait, something else is woefully amiss.  The president of the United States is the one behaving more like a 'both sides' journalist as he talks about "many sides, many sides" and framing for balance "Not Trump. Not Obama" as if he can escape accountability for his entire term by invoking Obama or Clinton at every turn. Of course, his brand of journalism is actually propaganda as he cries out "fake news, fake news." Always willing to take the credit, but never to admit responsibility that could result in taking blame for anything he says or does that has real life consequences.

Trump is the president. He is no longer a candidate, though he likes to pretend with twitter and rallies that he is still a candidate. And he is not a journalist - propagandist or any other type, no matter how much he shouts "fake news, fake news". He has a role to play as the president, but he avoids fulfilling that proper role any time it makes him uncomfortable. He lapses into the role of a candidate, apparently thinking that reality will never catch up to him - the reality that he is accountable. Unfortunately, as a society, we seem able to force accountability only when horrible events occur, like murder or the start of a war of prosecutable crimes by the president. By then it is often too late.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The 'Better Than Ever' Future of the Democrats

Recent articles in politics have suggested that Democrats have failed in their messaging and need to improve. A few weeks ago party leaders rolled out the new slogan "A Better Deal" which was received with much harrumphing. (Democrats Struggle to Sell A Better Deal) But why?

David Leonhardt delved into this issue in Democrats Still Need a Story, asking readers to come up with A Better Slogan. He received 1,200 responses and collected the best ideas: A New Democratic Slogan? Your Choices. And these really do sound like the best ideas as ideas go.

I would argue that all of these "good" ideas are doomed to failure for many of the same reasons that the Candice Bergen character's best idea fell flat in "Starting Over" after her husband divorces her and then takes up with another woman. The performance of the song "Better than Ever" could be played as is at the next Democratic convention (sorry for the darkness):

Democratic strategy fails because it is so difficult for people to understand the thinking of other people who do not reason the way they do.  Rational, analytic thinkers often have difficulty understanding the minds of conservative, intuitive people. The Dems believe that they just need a better message to get through so that voters will focus on policy that will benefit them. But many instinctive people vote based on trust and they trust people who think and talk like they do and mistrust people who do not. These conservatives vote for a person, not a policy outcome. Policy is complicated, but deciding if you like a person is simple.

I think back to the political arguments my late mother had 40 years ago with her father who worked as a member of the Teamsters in the trucking industry before he retired in 1967. She would argue that FDR's policies were responsible for his Social Security which he should appreciate. Without Social Security, he would have negligible retirement income. But he was not voting based on policy or the personal impact on him . He knew who he liked and it was not the Democrats. He liked Jimmy Hoffa despite the meagerness of his own Teamsters pension. And despite Hoffa's obvious corruption. 

Trump brought a slew of new irrational voters back into the political process - people who had given up on hearing candidates who spoke and thought just like they did. And no one is suppressing the ability of these white voters to cast their votes. Republican strategists want these voters to remain engaged and actively voting.

No, the Democrats will never get through to these people with policy arguments, no matter how clever the messaging. 

Democratic strategy needs to focus on fighting voter suppression and inspiring the Democratic base. Maybe a better than ever slogan would be "Vote or Die - It's Up to  You". (Late update. Oops, apparently Vote or Die is already taken. You get the idea.)