Monday, March 20, 2017

Is a Statement a Lie if It is Deliberately Misleading?

Republican strategists understand the power of narrative and the importance of controlling the narrative. The investigation of Russian ties to Trump and the Trump campaign demand a counternarrative. Simply challenging the developing narrative of Trump's strong and longstanding ties to Russia is not enough. That would put Republicans on the defensive, like Hillary Clinton and Democrats in the Benghazi hearings. Like Hillary Clinton  and her email server.

No, despite the Russian attack on American democracy in 2016, Republican members are asserting their authority in Congressional hearings today by pursuing the narrative that leaks of classified information are the crime worth investigating - that somehow the constant stream of lies by the president are 'OK', but the leaks are politically motivated to create a false narrative about the current regime (accuse your opponent of the underhanded tactics that you yourself are employing)

And so, as USA Today reports,  Trey Gowdy presented Comey with a list of individuals including Obama and former members of his administration and asked one-by-one whether they "had access" to the information that was leaked. Comey dutifully answered "Yes" to each one.

Shortly thereafter, Sean Spicer opened his press briefing with the announcement that Comey said that prominent officials in the Obama administration could have leaked the information about Russian ties. But Spicer's statement strongly implies Comey offered up a statement to this effect, not that Comey responded "Yes" in general terms based on the office of each named individual. So, yes, deliberately misleading statements are lies.

Once again, the Republicans demonstrate their ability to control the narrative with a pattern of:

Deny - deny the Russian connection to Trump
Deflect - deflect attention to various members of the Obama administration
Distract - distract by raising a different issue that is completely irrelevant, in this case leaks of information
Accuse - accuse the persons to whom the spotlight is deflected of the wrongdoing concocted as a distraction.

Deny, deflect, distract, accuse. It works every time! The accusation against a yet to be determined high-ranking Obama official creates a false equivalence between the Obama administration and the Trump administration - you see, these are all just unproven allegations.

Feel better now?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Normal Times

In "Sexist Political Criticism Finds a New Target: KellyAnne Conway" the NYT makes an interesting editorial decision - placement of this piece in the straight news section rather than as opinion. Yet the piece reads as an opinion piece with its strongly expressed views of good and bad behavior. '
The Times rates this article News because, in their view, Times readers are mostly pro-Hillary and anti-sexism as is the Times. So if they go against the grain of their own usual thinking and that of their readers in a piece, it qualifies as news rather than opinion. The piece is a hit job on "the liberals" - really men, who are misbehaving. Sort of a "you are not as liberal as you think you are" or "you are no better than they are."
So what is so bad about this?
The Times has set formulas for news articles in the realm of politics. The standard formula is, in order to prove that you are not being unfair, you need to balance pros and cons of one "side" with equal and opposite pros and cons of the other "side". You are not a reporter. You are not even an arbiter. You are more like a mother being fair to all of her children, no matter what, seeking balance at all times.
But forced balance is not a path to objective depiction of reality. Forced balance leads only to balance, not understanding. If opposing sides are not equal, that is, different in some important way, it leads to drawing false equivalence and distraction from meaningful context - what is really happening.

Forced balance would have meant looking for the good in Hitler, to take an extreme example.

The striking thing about the KellyAnne Conway/Hillary Clinton equation article is just how strongly the NYT adheres to its balance formula for the News section.  "Misogyny, it seems, remains a bipartisan exercise." is one line in the article that screams out - OK, this is news, because we are being balanced.
The arguments in the article become strained and twisted several times, usually in a moment seeking balance.

"But she noted that while Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, is portrayed as an “evil genius” who cannily promotes images of an America at risk from immigrants and foreign competitors, Ms. Conway is depicted as “crazy” for devising and promoting similar messages."

Why in the world are we comparing Bannon and Conway, who have played different roles?  Bannon is almost exclusively the strategist behind the scenes and Conway frequently a spokesperson (until recent weeks). Bannon never needing to justify the actions of this administration, but Conway on the spot, answering tough questions like "Why does the president lie all the time?" similar to Spicer (until recently).  And who exactly has been calling Breitbart "an evil genius"? For that matter, who has been calling KAC a "slut" as the article states. How about naming those sources instead of generalizing in the passive voice. Poor editing. And KAC is called "crazy" for promoting "alternative facts". Isn't that reason enough?

Maybe a more on-point article would say that Conway invites contempt to the point that her critics find themselves behaving in ways they would normally find contemptible. "But these are not normal times." as the Times likes to say in a throw-away line that leaves a better explanation up to you, the reader.

Ultimately, in order to accurately report the news in context, the NYT will need to adjust their standard formulas for reporting so that the News section (this one is in the U.S. subsection) permits fair, accurate, objective reporting which, when politics is involved, does not require forced balance as the definition of objectivity.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Trumpian Way

The Trumpian Way dictates a single approach to questions about possible wrongdoing. Never clear the air. Always obfuscate thus:

If called on to investigate, react with indignation.
DENY any possible wrongdoing.
DEFLECT negative attention to a different person.
DISTRACT attention by raising an irrelevant issue.
ACCUSE someone who is an opponent or even an impartial judge of wrongdoing, preferably by tying the person on whom you deflected attention to the issue or action which you raised as a distraction.

Trump's accusation that President Obama had him wiretapped falls into this category along with two added benefits. Backed into a corner, Trump is lashing out using false victimization and the big lie. His accusation is so extreme - in the category of "if it is true, then President Obama did something illegal and horrible." That serves to distract from - what a second, you are just changing the subject away from yourself. Always blaming others when things go wrong, but happy to take credit you do not deserve.

Somehow, the argument is that Obama, no longer president, and the Democrats, need to be investigated over and over again based on an unsubstantiated charge that they may have done something illegal and there is somehow urgency, despite Democrats holding no measurable power in the federal government. But the possibility that Trump and his team are corrupt and beholden to Russia now and on a continuing basis, potentially a grave crisis for American democracy, should not be investigated with any urgency. Just trust us. Why? Well because we are always ready with accusations against anyone who says we need to be investigated because the evidence is compelling.

We also have:
FALSE EQUIVALENCE and
WINNING THROUGH INTIMIDATION

Trump's technique makes use of false equivalence. An investigation of those out of power can never be as urgent as an investigation of those holding all the power.

An urgently required investigation of the current administration - urgent exactly because they are the current administration is made to appear at least equal in urgency to a proposed investigation of the prior administration who no longer hold any power. And the accusation functions as intimidation.

Intimidate the press by berating them in the daily briefing. Intimidate the press by freezing out organizations who are defined as "unfriendly" because they are not overtly friendly like Breitbart and Fox. Intimidate individual companies by singling them out for criticism.

CHANGING STORIES

Members of the administration including Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions delayed coming forward about lies until events forced their hand. Stories are vague and changing. Memories are foggy, even of events a few months ago.

The president and his administration behave like they are guilty of major wrongdoing that they want to conceal. This permanent campaign against American values and national interest can only succeed if Republican leaders continue to facilitate the destruction of our democratic institutions.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Substance Free

Republicans have long used investigations as a political tactic. The subject of the investigation automatically appears guilty or at least compromised. The original matter of investigation may yield absolutely nothing, but enough information is uncovered to start up a new investigation. New investigation, but same person is the target. Ask anyone named Clinton.
With Republicans in absolute power, the tables are turned. The preferred target of investigation remains HRC, but a miasma of concerns surrounds DJT. What to do? Double down on HRC? That was the plan if she had been elected, but now, maybe too transparent a tactic.
If you are a Republican in Congress thrilled with finally possessing power to dismantle the federal government - "see, we told you the federal government does not work, except for the military" - you avoid investigating DJT.
Any investigation of DJT, once started, makes him look guilty. Any information uncovered may make him look guilty. 
Republicans don't want that. Republicans in Congress will seek to water down any investigation and try to distract from what they are doing. Ironically, policy discussion, which they avoid during election campaigns with ad hominem attacks on opponents, may be used to distract from substantive accusations against the White House. But don't worry, discussion will focus on how important their proposals are for the financial survival of the nation. 
Don't expect a sudden shift to substantive treatment of the issues any time soon.

Always Be Denying

Republican strategy is always about winning. Trump takes this to an extreme, but he is still the ultimate example of that strategy. When victory requires lying to a segment of your supporters about who you are and what you will do, then intelligent discussion is avoided at all costs. Bottom line: there can be no accountability ---ever.
The GWB administration began firing US attorneys after election day in 2006 clearly hoping that no one would notice. But a pattern emerged. Republican attorneys who had failed to prosecute "voter fraud" cases were fired. Their replacements would presumably toe the line. Thus are the institutions of a progressive democracy chipped away.
When GWB stood accuse of hiring hacks to replace these attorneys, the example of Bill Clinton firing attorneys when he became president was raised as a defense, ignoring the obvious difference between a president of one party being replaced by a president of the opposing party and the same president continuing in office. Deny/Deflect/Distract and use False Equivalence. The explanation offered was plausible - it gives the true believers an argument they can latch onto, but it was
not believable.
We hear explanations for the Trump/Russia connection that fall into this category - amid ample evidence of strong connections between 'businessman' politician Trump and the Kremlin kleptocracy that have spilled over to lurch American foreign policy to a pro-Putin posture as the State Department is eviscerated.
The more damning the evidence, the more vociferous the denials that an independent investigation is needed to determine if we have a mole in the White House...or many moles. Deny/Deflect/Distract and yes, Accuse. Accuse the Obama administration.
This will not end well.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Liberal Majority

As we head into the second month of a Trump presidency, the New York Times editorial policy continues to adjust to the new reality. NYT, who struggle to call a lie a lie, now must wonder - how to cover a fierce opposition to the Muslim ban, anti-science agenda, and closeness to Russia, all from a man who labeled his opponent a crook and a liar, but whose counsel belittled the emoluments clause.
The Constitution matters, except when we say it doesn't. And, oh, by the way, the press is the opposition party and an enemy of the American people.

As an objective reporter, how do you refer to large groups of people who do not hate Obama (a majority), who favor the continuation of the healthcare law, who would like the intelligence agencies who fear the president is a crook and may be a mole to continue with full investigations? Call them the pro-science crowd? Pro-diversity? Pro-reason? Just call them the rational majority?

No, the NYT must always go with balance, with the appearance of objectivity as if arriving from another planet.

We can not call them Democrats, because they may not be Democrats. So call them "liberals" because they oppose Trump. Now, for the NYT, anyone who opposes Trump is a "liberal"

So, in "With Coverage in Peril and Obama Gone, Health Law's Critics Go Quiet", the NYT states
'As liberals overwhelm congressional town hall-style meetings and deluge the Capitol phone system with pleas to protect the health law, there is no similar clamor for dismantling it, Mr. Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.'
But does that reporter know these people are all so-called liberals? Are all those individuals coming forward in the town halls to say that 'Obamacare" saved them liberals? Do conservatives with that experience stay mum?

And so it is with "Liberals are Still Angry, But Merrick Garland has Reached Acceptance". Up until this past week, that would have been "Democrats are Still Angry...".

And "Are Liberals Helping Trump?" Talk about blaming the victim.

Look for NYT to continue to balance opposing sides by calling all opposition to Trump "Liberals", in their never-ending search for balance, even when that balance distorts reality and diminishes the numbers, quality, and meaning of that fierce opposition.

Somehow, to the Times, the pathological lying and obfuscation is something to fact check and then move on, which equates to ignoring it and the damaging impact on society.


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.