Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Oh, the Asymmetry! the Asymmetry!

Two weeks ago we promised a post on the importance of the asymmetry debate, the argument that "both sides" are not equal and opposite - the "false equivalence" problem.  Actually, there is not much of a debate, which requires two sides that disagree actually engaging in a discussion on the topic.

Vox has an unusual, well researched article today contrasting the media treatment of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton foundation with the treatment of Colin Powell's foundation. Unusual because few media outlets take on the "meta" issue of faulty political reporting that shies away from clear interpretation of the political context - that is, how political news is being covered -- because that would violate the antiquated rule that objective reporting requires asking "each side" what they think without reporting the journalist's own objective interpretation. Got that?

In Colin Powell's Foundation and Hillary Clinton's are treated very differently by the media, Matthew Yglesias writes : 
"Because Colin Powell did not have the reputation in the mid- to late ’90s of being a corrupt or shady character, his decision to launch a charity in 1997 was considered laudable."

...and these other sentences that should sound familiar to longtime readers of this blog:

'Powell was presumed to be innocent — and since Democrats did not make attacks on Powell part of their partisan strategy — his charity was never the subject of a lengthy investigation'.  Which is lucky for him, because as Clinton could tell you, once you are the subject of a lengthy investigation, the press doesn’t like to report, 'Well, we looked into it and we didn’t find anything interesting.'
Hillary's problem is people "know" she is corrupt.  "

"The perception that Clinton is corrupt is one of her most profound handicaps as a politician. And what’s particularly crippling about it is that evidence of her corruption is so widespread exactly because everyone knows she’s corrupt."
"Because people “know” that she is corrupt, every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light."
"The press should contextualize Clinton stories." [Emphasis added]

And so on.
Finally. Somebody gets it. Yes, context is everything.

One problem here is that we should not need the counterexample of Colin Powell's experience to demonstrate the unfair context of the persistent Clinton attacks. What if there were no Powell foundation and we had to make a convincing case of fairness for Clinton based on the fact of the endless stream of personal attacks over decades? Yes, what if we lived in a world where Republican former Presidents go off and mostly play golf while former Democratic Presidents start foundations and do charitable work? Hmmm. There's that pesky asymmetry again that we had best ignore. Instead, let's ask Donald Trump what he thinks.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Fifth Dimension

As a teenager in the 1960s, I was at one point confined to bed convalescing from an illness during the summer and needed to keep myself occupied. We had a shortwave radio, so I roamed the airwaves to find broadcasts from different countries in Europe and Asia.

I especially enjoyed  listening to Radio Moscow, which was beamed to the U.S.  The endless stream of propaganda was fascinating. Russia had their own inventors of the light bulb and other modern devices. In fact, the Soviet Union was apparently superior in all respects. How did I recognize the propaganda? After all, I could not prove who invented the lightbulb and I was not in a position to observe the Soviet Union directly. But I did know I lived in an open society that really did have freedom of speech and of the press where I was told the truth about the Soviet Union. After all, the U.S. and World War II allies had withdrawn from German occupation while the Soviet Union had maintained control of their occupied territories throughout Central and Eastern Europe. So there was asymmetry between  U.S. and NATO allies vs. the Soviets, not two equal and opposite opponents who were just two sides of the same coin.

Aside from my textbook knowledge of world history, I also observed patterns of behavior of the radio personalities. The Soviet Union was always so wonderful. Never a discouraging word. Bursting with national pride. And never mistaken. Never in doubt.  I could not imagine that the Soviet propaganda machine was fooling anyone and wondered why they kept trying with these transmissions.

Today's New York Times opinion piece The Age of Post-Truth Politics made me think of that Soviet era propaganda. The article argues, vaguely, that there is too much data to sift through these days, too many facts available and therefore people can choose themselves what they wish to believe, which encourages conspiracy theories.

Any consumer of news programming can discern the style and behavior patterns of a reporter who is searching for truth from someone who is searching for “facts” to support their ready-made conclusions. And if that behavior includes ever-changing lines of attack against a political opponent without evidence, maybe serious skepticism is in order. The problem today is too many viewers who are happy to be fooled, not too much data or too many news sources. The willing believer will not be persuaded by better communications as the NYT piece suggests with Brexit politics as the example. The author seems to regard our current state as a confusing universe, similar to the alternate realities where ordinary folks found themselves in the 1960s TV mystery "The Twilight Zone."

Count me unconvinced.

Monday, August 22, 2016

There You Go Again

The NYT never fails to disappoint. In a news article today, a shift in the Clinton campaign is reported - After Shake-Up by Trump, Clinton Camp Keeps Wary Eye on Conspiracy Theories.

First of all, does the Clinton campaign really need to start talking about "conspiracy theories" for the NYT to notice what in the 1990s was called "the politics of personal destruction"? In a word, no.

For example, Bad Pols or Bad Polls was the question we posed June 20 with a follow-up on July 2 on the NYT Upshot response of Exit Polls, and Why The Primary Was Not Stolen From Bernie Sanders. In the Upshot piece, Nate Cohn swatted away the conspiracy theories of a -you guessed it - rigged election. Between June 20 and July 2 the NYT had ignored that conspiracy theory, presumably as unworthy of reporting, until the conspiracy theories became too widespread to ignore.

From what I hear, there is a tense relationship between the NYT news folks and the Upshot.
Still,  why does the NYT News department need to report every story that relates to politics as a "he said/she said story" in this instance waiting for a Clinton campaign response before reporting conspiracy theories? Well, because to meet the NYT standard of journalistic integrity, you must be objective, and to be objective you must report what one side does, then go to the other side for their reaction, then go back to the other side, and so on. Every person is a potential voter and if you vote you are therefore biased and nonobjective and therefore ineligible to make intelligent interpretations of the evidence. So the story goes - there is an Opinion section for opinion. Sorry, but that system fails. Waiting for the Clinton campaign's reaction dignifies all allegations against the candidate and misses the meta-story - the fact of an intense campaign of never-ending allegations of wrongdoing that persists until one of the allegations can stick and then working that allegation to death.

While the NYT has begun to question their definition of objectivity, notably on the Business/Media page, it should not have been necessary to have the extreme case of candidate Trump for this process of questioning to begin.

Some journalism professors emphasize context as just as important to accurate reporting. If we back up from "conspiracy theories" we see that they exist in the context of looking for evidence of problems with a candidate. Without challenges from reporters questioning the dangers of this charged atmosphere, this tactical approach of making unfounded allegations rapidly devolves into claims that allegations are true, regardless of their accuracy or that the allegations are important, even if they are not.

Back to that Media article - it begins,
If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

That misidentifies the problem. The problem for a journalist is not having beliefs about the person. The problem is that when a candidate makes an important statement that is false, the journalist need not necessarily go to the opponent to seek the response. Just say the statement is false and important if it is. Say why it is important. If not important, say so. Otherwise readers are left with a back and forth between candidates and a general sense of balance which is responsible for the false equivalency that is intrinsic to political reporting in NYT and a little less so in Wapo. And if attacks by a candidate or supporters are unconscionable, as the relentless personal attacks on Clinton staffer Huma Abedin, certainly appear to be, as a matter of principle, then say so - or at least report that there is a context of continual personal attacks.

We are often told we live in a polarized time, but that so-called polarization is largely a result of failure by the objective media to do their job - not  a problem of giving Trump too much air time, but failing to call it like they see em. Imagine an umpire calling balls and strikes, not objectively based on what he sees, but by asking the batter and the catcher whether it was a ball or a strike and if they disagree, then asking - "he says it was low and inside", "No, it was right down the pipe." Let's check with the manager.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

It's The Asymmetry Stupid!

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on the importance of the asymmetry debate. If you just can't wait and want a taste, take a look at the revised and updated Beyond the Pale and Both Sides Do It. Then read the Difference Between an Actuary and a Statistician, including the new final paragraph. It's all about the asymmetry as Ornstein and Mann below know so well.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


So tough watching Chris Matthews on MSNBC just now. How does someone with his knowledge and experience not get it. CM asked his balanced panel their thoughts on the insinuations about Hillary's health. (The Democratic strategist said it was a sign of desperation) Matthews suggested there must be something to the allegations because the truth will be out soon enough. Is he kidding? Where has he been? There have been no adverse consequences to any false allegations in Presidential election campaigns for ages. In fact, even when proven false, the stories now continue on in the twittersphere. John Kerry and his family know a lot about this.

Both Sides

"Both sides all the time" is a result of confusion among the principled news media about the difference between objectivity and balance. The NYT, Washington Post and the like are defensive about being seen as liberal and biased and bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of bias, but they place concern about appearances over concern about reality. The dogged pursuit of Hilary Clinton to make her appear untrustworthy, regardless of the reality, is a simple matter of fact that could be reported directly. The long series of false accusations, often cruel and unusual, and investigations is central to our political reality. Fair reporting would prompt cries of bias, so the NYT, for example, instead joined the bandwagon calling for release of the transcripts of the speeches at Goldman Sachs, ignoring the novelty of that demand which should have been a red flag. The longstanding traditional thinking that the only way to report objectively is to meet a fair and balanced standard relies on good faith of both parties to the discussion to be effective. That good faith fell by the wayside long ago when one side decided to take advantage of this weakness in the objective news media. Foxnews is a propaganda machine that ranges over into news reporting. The NYT is too afraid of appearing to be a news machine that ranges over into liberal bias, so they avoid any reporting that could be accused of bias, even when that reporting is totally factual, accurate, and complete.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Myth or Reality

As readers of these pages are aware, much of this blog is devoted to distinguishing between myth and reality on the political scene. We frequently point to analogies from sports and popular culture where myths persist despite the best of intentions. The college admissions process is a case in point. A former colleague of mine, Jim Obernesser, discusses Eight Myths About College Admissions on the blog for his consultancy Your Way to College.

Your Way to College is dedicated to helping students identify colleges where they can thrive and limit debt, while easing the stress typically associated with the college admissions process.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Party Crasher

Donald Trump's remarks about the Second Amendment folks yesterday were as extreme as they could be without him actually being taken into custody and charged with a serious crime.
Context matters. Someone boarding a commercial flight who "jokes" about carrying a bomb is immediately taken away and questioned.
Source: cnn.com
Yet the Wall Street Journal reports on front page today "New Flap for Trump Over Gun Comments" about "an off-the-cuff remark that critics (ital. added) interpreted as inciting violence against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton". Is that a true statement? Yes, critics interpreted that way, but so did a lot of other people including those squeamish supporters among Republican officeholders.

The NYT news reported " Mr. Trump...issued what some saw (ital. added) as a threat to Mrs. Clinton." The problem with that even-handed approach is that it takes only the most recent campaign events as context without a sense of history or patterns of behavior and implies this is all part of the give-and-take back-and-forth of any campaign. Why not say "what sounded like a threat to Mrs. Clinton"?  Instead the story can easily drift toward - what will be the impact on the polls of the latest "malatrumpism" without contemplating the historical perspective  - what happens if one candidate is assassinated because some crazy person becomes inspired to action? Then what will we hear? Angry denials. "I never meant..."

The Washington Post finally started to pay attention to short term patterns which they reported on their news pages: From Trump's words, a pattern: Outrage, headlines, then denial:

That kind of context reporting is a positive step, but long term patterns have been ignored.

The New York Times is still so measured about news reporting on politics, bending over backwards to give equal weight to "both sides" and thus failing to report actual news as they might see it. In context, Hillary Clinton has been made subject to ever increasing demonization by political opponents in a series of attacks over decades. That pattern of attacks is the simple factual context that should be so reported in the news section, not just the opinion pages. Republican strategists have long taken advantage of the weakness of the so-called liberal press to report extreme political tactics on the news pages, even when the pattern of behavior is well established as fact. Trump is only the latest manifestation of this phenomenon.  Trump is not an aberration. He represents a culmination of the politics of all tactics all the time, which results in tactics that go beyond the pale.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

When All Else Fails

Today I decided to google "Hillary Clinton" thinking that I sure have seen a lot of questioning about her health lately. Interesting that this heightened concern about the health of the candidate coincides with dropping poll numbers for Donald Trump. Sure enough, the four Google suggestions in order were-
hillary clinton news
hillary clinton age
hillary clinton seizures
hillary clinton tax plan

Now, you may have noticed that "age" pops up in internet searches for almost any living person just as "news" does for any person who is frequently in the news. That "seizures" ranks just after these two is interesting, which tells us that the emerging questions about HRC health are trending in a big way.

Of course, in a week that Donald Trump's mental fitness and preparedness has been called into question, the logical counterpunch is to double down on the question of Hillary Clinton's mental and physical fitness, at least in the environment of all tactics all the time. The more the Trump campaign falters with defections from Republican officeholders, the more extreme we can expect that campaign's tactics to become between now and November. Unfortunately, we can also expect the legitimate objective press to pick up and run with all the Clinton health questions because that is what they do - even if the allegations dart all over from one health question to another.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

If Only We Knew A Little More, We Would Know Enough

Interesting off-the-mark opinion piece in NYT today about the need to obtain Trump tax returns in order to learn about his character using the example of Richard Nixon.
Source: Charles Tasnadi AP via NYT
The piece claims that we do not now know enough about Trump to judge his character. If we knew more we could predict the kind of President he would be, and the release of his tax returns would somehow tell us what we need to know, but that is completely ridiculous. For example,  what if those tax returns are totally legitimate? Does that make him a fine upstanding candidate? No, but it would give the press material to sift through for more stories and possible lines of attack, similar to the endless digging into Hillary Clinton's past. If the Trump returns reveal nothing, the press might then ask for the tax returns of Eric, Ivanka, and Donald Jr. who are entwined in the family business. Or Melania if she and her husband do not file jointly. What this reflects is a press that tortures logic to cover politics objectively, struggling with abstract concepts of character, experience, and personality and constantly looking for more information that is concrete.
The reporting might go like this:
-Look what we found in the returns - he is a tax cheat or, not so rich, maybe.
-Not so.
-Yes it is.
-No, it isn't.
And so on.
The press needs to properly center the discussion of the issues, but not on the political middle, which is a point between two sides arguing.  Instead, for an intelligent discussion and truly objective reporting, the presss needs to report the most reasonable interpretation of each issue based on the evidence. When the evidence is sufficient, stop looking for more data if it is superfluous and start interpreting the existing information. Trump appears to be suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. He is unlike almost anyone else in business and public life. Do we want to elect a president like that? That is the question. To the press - just say no to all claims that we need tax returns, emails, and transcripts because they are all distractions.

There is a problem with the competitive search for disqualifiers vs. trying to better understand what the candidate is all about. Yes, let's try to learn more about the candidates if there is more to learn, but Trump?, Clinton? Both have been in the public sphere for decades. The picture of each of them feels sort of complete. This obsession with obtaining more documentation is a first cousin of the waiting for a gaffe obsession with previous campaigns. Candidate X is the favorite to win, unless he makes a big gaffe just before the election? Huh? Is that what the choice of president is all about? Superficial appearances? Make a gaffe and you are disqualified? Unfortunately, the gaffe obsession is a symptom  of the degradation of our political reporting as is the obsession with obtaining more documents. If there is ever a case of knowing enough about both major party candidates it is this year.

One problem with the search for disqualifiers based on some vague notion of character is that it never ends, until something allegedly disqualifying is found, OR, it falls short. So, when Bill Clinton was president and about to be impeached -- finally after years of trying out different accusations, here was an accusation that could stick -- the Republicans in the lame duck Congress needed to clean up their act to avoid any appearance of a double standard on "personal" behavior. So Newt Gingrich got out of the way early as Speaker of the House, resigning that post because divorcing his wife during her battle with cancer in the hospital (was that an actual scene? does it matter?) looked bad. Unfortunately, his designated successor Bob Livingston withdrew from consideration due to his sexual affairs that would have disqualified him and even resigned from the House to set the example for the president who was expected to resign. Of course, Clinton did not resign even though the Republicans elected a Speaker of the House who was considered beyond reproach with nothing in his past that could possibly disqualify him. This man.
Source: chicagotribune.com

Source: cnn.com
Only recently did we learn that Dennis Hastert was a bad choice for a Speaker whose character was beyond reproach.