Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Years Resolutions

It's that time of year. Dismal failures of the reality based journalists in 2016 were followed by improvements in 2017. But the first year of a presidential administration always signals a shift by the mainstream press - from election year forced balance (aka false balance/false equivalence) to speaking truth to power. So whether or not lessons have been learned remains to be seen (as they were once fond of saying) in 2018, an election year for Congress.

Jared Bernstein has his own presciptives in the realm of economics and tax policy in "A New Year’s resolution for the media: Do not let Republicans get away with saying ‘reforms’ when they mean ‘cuts’"

In my italics, some of Bernstein's peeves:
From Congressional Quarterly, "In describing Ryan’s agenda, the piece noted ([Bernstein's] bold, in all cases below) that “the Wisconsin Republican has detailed an ambitious effort to dramatically reshape Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs that the GOP has long targeted as ripe for reforms. … Ryan has said he plans to use the budget reconciliation process for entitlement changes."

Bernstein also calls out CNN reporting on "entitlement reform" and Politico's references to "Ryan’s “obsession” with “fixing” the “ballooning entitlement state” and “tinkering with the social safety net.” Bernstein notes "Who could possibly be against “fixing” something!"


I would ask the reality based media to resist as much as possible two related tendencies:
1. Forced balance, and
2. He said/She said

The NYT is especially guilty of forcing balance in straight news pieces, much more than the WaPo, even though both claim the mantle of objective journalism. Forced balance is now often being called "whataboutism", which, as a term, better captures the irrelevancy of the comparison being made.
This forced balance or whataboutism was not always with us. For those of us who recall the Carter administration, there was widespread criticism, but few if any comparisons with the administrations of Ford, Nixon, or Eisenhower. (The unwritten rule of forced balance is that any criticism of the president/candidate of one party requires as a matter of fairness, comparison/contrast with recent president/candidate of the other party in the entrenched two party system. And, according to rule, you go back as far as necessary for the most apt comparison. For Trump, you first try Obama, and if that does not work, you skip over Bush and try Clinton. That gives you 16 years to work with, so a hit is almost guaranteed.

Forced balance in reporting on Trump should become easier as more time elapses. Avoiding false balance just means trying to report on Trump administration actions and policy without comparing and contrasting with the previous Democratic administrations and, in particular, without comparing with HRC who has not held a public policy post for years.

By way of example, suppose Trump shot his wife with a revolver. Would the New York Times report, "For the first time, a sitting President appears to have shot his wife, according to eyewitness reports of Secret Service agents, though, early in the Clinton administration, Hillary Clinton was accused by Republican critics of complicity in the death of Vince Foster which was ruled a suicide by authorities."

So just stop doing that NYT. OK?

And stop reporting straight news as always a "he said/she said" story by avoiding phrases like "Democratic critics claim..." when telling the other side of the story. As an example, the Trump administration has come under harsh criticism from many traditional Republican stalwarts (though few officeholders) , so isolating counterarguments to Trump administration statements and justifications for their actions to so-called "Democratic critics" is false and misleading.

As put forward on many occasions on this blog, unlike the sciences, where reporters are usually not scientists, reporters on politics generally need to be subject matter experts. So they have their own interpretation of the facts which is not necessarily skewed false by their political preferences if they are true to their craft.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Not a Populist...Not a Populist

In "The biggest surprise of Trump's first year is his hard-right economic policy" Vox's Matthew Yglesias shows that he just does not get it.

Yglesias argument goes something like this.

1. Trump constantly lies as president just as he lied throughout his campaign.
2. Much of his othere awful behavior, like the lying, has continued while he is president.
3. But he was a populist who promised to implement populist policies as president.
4. Despite the promises, Trump has been governing as a hard right conservative, not a true populist.

Yglesias calls this behavior surprising.

Where to begin?

First of all, if, during a political campaign, a candidate lies all the time and makes policy promises - maybe, just maybe, those policy promises are lies, too.

Any thoughtful analysis of Trump must recognize his deeply narcissistic personality disorder. The truth means nothing to him. Everything he says is geared totally toward maximization of self advantage. There is literally no such thing as the truth as the rest of us understand it. For a narcissist who is a constant liar, campaign promises, after the election, become mere statements made in the past. There is no day of reckoning because when reckoning would come for a mere mortal, the challenge from the fact checkers only requires a new lie, a new denial or accusation, a deflection, or all of the above. Every statement is made in the moment as a way to get to the next day. There is no looking back to the past. There is no looking forward to the future.

So, during the campaign, when the demand comes for release of tax returns, the narcissist just says - "I am under audit and can not release the returns." When pressed, hejust says - "I have answered that question. I don't talk about that anymore. " The statements make no sense, but they achieve the purpose of deflection.

Yglesias continues: "But what’s flown under the radar is that there is plenty surprising about Trump’s conduct in office. In particular, on economic issues he’s governed a lot more like a hard-right conservative than a freewheeling populist."

But that was never a surprise. It was to be expected. In important ways, Trump was a perfect fit for the Republican controlled Congress. Trump cares only about personal financial gain and dominance of others. Campaign promises were made as a matter of convenience, telling supporters what they wanted to hear in the moment, with no concern for the future. That left the Republicans in Congress free to craft any legislation they wanted which Trump would sign into law. Every new law can be declared a success by Trump, no matter the impact. For him, that was winning.

And it remains to be seen whether Trump's adherence to Republican policy prescriptives translates into continued low approval, or if,  as Yglesias' puts it -  "The combination of graft and plutocracy" is "a huge political loser". Yglesias' makes a strong case that the Trump administration policies are anti-populist", but this was never a surprise. And Yglesias provides no compelling argument that the anti-populist policies will matter to Trump's base of support.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Inaccurate and Unfair, but Trying

In "F.B.I. Director Wants to Moves Forward, but the President is Making His Job Harder", the NYT again reminds us that their journalistic standards have been stretched beyond their limits by Trumpism.

The NYT in their news coverage needs to confine the news to reporting of what is happening as objectively as possible. Unfortunately, the NYT tries to give all news makers the benefit of the doubt that they are eminently reasonable people whose motives must be taken as face value to coincide with their stated purpose. For the NYT, you can only question the statements of Trump or other politicians by subjecting those statements to "fact checking". But we can never know for sure what another person is thinking or feeling. So, as a reporting shortcut and a way to bend over backwards to be "fair", the NYT accepts statements and actions by politicians in the most favorable light possible.

The story begins with

"WASHINGTON — When President Trump tapped Christopher A. Wray to be his next F.B.I. director, it signaled a clear break from the tenure of James B. Comey, whom Mr. Trump had grown to distrust and eventually fired."

That statement, taken without context that we all know so well, is, on its face, completely absurd. What exactly was so bad about the tenure of Comey that required a "clear break"? Integrity comes to mind as the most likely problem. And "Mr. Trump had grown to distrust..." implies some reason the so-called "Mr." Trump would have good reason to lose confidence in Comey, other than the simple reason that Comey's team of investigators was closing in on the Trump team, especially Flynn and Manafort at that time. So this NYT news piece begins poorly by granting way too much benefit of the doubt to Trump.

It gets worse.

"It seemed Mr. Trump would let his handpicked F.B.I. director do his work unimpeded, giving Mr. Wray some breathing room. “I know that he will again serve his country as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity,” the president said in June."

This is more cutting corners and benefit of the doubt - what Steve Schmidt refers to as not starting fresh every Monday morning with Trump as if the previous week (and all prior weeks) had never happened and writing as if he is a perfectly reasonable person who can never be trusted by anyone.

If we try to make the Times statement accurate with as few changes as possible, the sentence would need to read as follows:

"If Mr. Trump was a reasonable person and not a constant liar, it would have seemed Mr. Trump would let his handpicked F.B.I. director do his work unimpeded, giving Mr. Wray some breathing room. “I know that he will again serve his country as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity,” the president said in June."

Or something along those lines, acknowledging Trump's pathological behavior. But that kind of nod to reality bumps up against the NYT journalistic standard that any description that is or could be construed as negative about a person has to be treated as "opinion" which can only appear in the Opinion section or, in some circumstances, the NYT Magazine or, with certain restrictions, in Business or Media or similar sections.

That leaves the News articles with an artificially imposed requirement to sacrifice accuracy in the interest of "balance" in order to maintain an appearance of "fairness" with the result being inaccuracy and unfairness. The remainder of the article strikes a tone of appearances being important for Mr. Wray.  He supposedly needs to maintain appearances so that FBI rank and file agents due not lose morale while Mr. Trump wants agents who were promoted by Director Comey - (remember, the man who lost Mr. Trump's trust for reasons unspecified in the piece.

And that's too bad because today we learned that McCabe is indeed going to retire. Baker has been reassigned. And Comey was fired. So the dismantling of the FBI is well underway while the Times puts the focus on appearances.

Public trust will suffer, but public trust is not something Trump has ever cared about.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Doubling Down on Lies

David Leonhardt doubled down this week on the principle of false balance coupled with the technique of counting lies (instead of evaluating lies) as an analytical tool.

The original NYT list of "Trump's Lies" appeared as a June 23, 2017. 'opinion' piece -- even though the determination of whether a statement is true or false and, if false, is therefore a lie is arguably an objective exercise. Certainly, in this case, the author is at least implicitly claiming objectivity by proceeding with the lie count. The original piece openly asked for input from readers regarding appropriate next steps. Our Counting Lies post criticized the effort on two counts:

1) Evaluation of Trump's lies has nothing to do with presidents Bush or Obama. Going down that rabbit hole distracts from important issues and, but once again using balance as the yardstick for evaluation, automatically leans toward normalization of Trump and improves the chances that false equivalence of Trump with others will rule the day.

2) A better analysis would categorize the lies by their apparent nature and quality. The NYT is a group of slow learners. In September 2016, the NYT referred to Trump as "mischievous" even while asserting that they would finally start calling a lie a lie.

Despite the flaws in the NYT approach to objectively describing Trump's extreme behavior, Leonhardt has updated the list of lies by comparisons with Obama in "Trump's Lies vs. Obama." Though the list he compiles clearly ranks Trump with a high lie count compared with the count they compile for Obama, proceeding with this exercise is particularly troubling.

First of all, this exercise was a response to Trump supporters who "didn’t doubt that he[Trump] sometimes bent the truth. But they thought he was no worse than other recent presidents, and they challenged The Times to do the same exercise for a president other than Trump."

But is there any doubt that Trump supporters who believe that Trump's lies are few and innocent will be moved by such an exercise? Of course not. They will either ignore it or look for one or two real or perceived flaws in Leonhardt's Obama lie count and use that "finding" as a cudgel to reject the entire exercise as "biased" in favor of Obama. But the goal of distracting from useful evaluation of Trump's fundamental mendacity will have been achieved by those Trump supporters. Leonhardt does not even seem aware that this Trump supporters criticism fits into the Deny/Distract/Deflect/Accuse framework (see Birtherism as a Service or All Tactics All the Time) recently highlighted by John Oliver as "whataboutism".

Additional thoughts:

To David Leonhardt - why not tell the Trump supporters to ask Fox News to count up the Obama lies if they are so interested in them. My guess is that Fox would not do it because that is not how they plan  this game. Fox News identifies a "fact" that motivates strong emotions of hate and fear of liberals and countervailing "facts" to motivate feelings of patriotism  and loyalty to conservatives.

What if Trump were the first president and lied all the time?  For lack of predecessors, would you compare him to King George? Or would you wish there had been other presidents for purposes of comparison because you would have no idea how to assess whether or not his constant lies is a serious concern?

Sorry, but Obama appeared at all times to be a president who was sincere and spoke at length pointing to facts in support of his statements. If his statements did not hold up, then he was in a good position to make corrections and generally did. Anyone who could not see that will not be moved. He was also disadvantaged by a relentless unfair series of attacks on his character. Fortunately, his character was so solid that those attacks were ultimately ineffective. Trump, on the other hand, has a long history of only thinking of himself and acting on his own behalf, and, as Steve Schmidt has been saying, "Trump lies 100% of the time."

About Doubt

"Doubting the Intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked" reads the headline this week in WaPo. But does he doubt the intelligence, or reject the intelligence? The text of the article does not mince words quite like the headline, going on to state that - "Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House."

So if he indeed rejects the intelligence, the question is why. Is it a healthy skepticism? Is he a spy?
The thought that the POTUS is an agent of a foreign power is such an extreme idea that, even if all of the evidence pointed in that direction, our responsible journalists in their everyday reporting bend over backwards to present alternative theories with equal weight.
Three Amigos courtesy
Now the main thrust of the article is clear as it states "The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government." So whatever the reason for the actions of the president, the article highlights the clear threat to national security of a president who refuses to hold a hostile foreign power accountable for their direct actions against the U.S.

This piece comes at an important time with Republicans in the House challenging the reliability of the FBI and the Mueller investigation.  U.S. foreign policy tilts heavily in favor of Russia and other dictatorships and away from nations allied with the U.S. in the decades before 2017.

But when it comes to the possible culpability of the president, instead of offering the simplest explanation for his actions, the WaPo piece scales back from a common sense conclustion to an ostensibly plausible (but really implausible) explanation. "White House officials cast the president’s refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the election as an understandably human reaction."

The article unearths a series of encounters between and among senior government officials, which does shed light on how the Trump position on Russia has played out throughout 2017.

And WaPo notes "Trump has never explained why he so frequently seems to side with Putin.
To critics, the answer is assumed to exist in the unproven allegations of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, or the claim that Putin has some compromising information about the American president. Aides attribute Trump’s affection for Putin to the president’s tendency to personalize matters of foreign policy and his unshakable belief that his bond with Putin is the key to fixing world problems."

That "To critics.." statement is the weakest point of the piece. As a hard news article, editorial policy of WaPo dictates that any interpretation of events that would constitute a reasonable best guess, but would appear highly accusatory must be consigned to the 'he said/she said' bin of logical discourse, the "on the one hand yes, but on the other hand, no."  The 'we report the facts, but we have no interpretation.'

So the most important point - is the president a spy? a money launderer? an agent of a foreign power? is shunted aside to an evenhanded tug between "unproven allegations" and "the president's tendency to personalize matters of foreign policy" as well as a never explained and vague "unshakeable belief that his bond with Putin is the key to fixing world problems."

The problem with this approach is what Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt calls, to paraphrase, starting fresh every Monday morning with Trump as if we know nothing about him, as if we only have the claims made by two equal and opposite sides, even though this president "lies 100% of the time." as Schmidt has said many times.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine is one of the few observers who picks up on the significance of this reporting flaw in "Advisers Afraid to Bring Up Russian Hacking Around Trump Because It Triggers Him". Chait states that the WaPo article reports "in devastating detail" about the short tempered president, while pointing out "And yet, as humiliating as the treatment of the president’s fragile psyche may be, in its most important aspects, the account is exculpatory. "

The problem with the WaPo piece that quotes top aides about Trump's "frustration" because "he believes he is innocent" is that, as Chait says - "This is a perfectly sensible frame for analyzing the thinking and behavior of a normal person. But it is not a sensible frame for analyzing the thinking and behavior of Donald Trump." Chait ends with the simple statement - "But it’s quite possible his hair-trigger anger over the subject of Russia is a tactic designed to close off a subject on which his guilt runs very deep."

And so the frame of the WaPo report is a flawed frame that exists due to the use of outmoded standards for 'objective' reporting, but which are not accurate. Avoiding the obvious explanation for Trump's behavior because it makes him look guilty, guilty, guilty results in distorted presentation of the story. One could read the WaPo piece and reasonably conclude - No wonder Trump becomes furious! He knows he is innocent after all. What could be more frustrating. Sure, let's shut down that infuriating Mueller investigation at once would be a reasonable takeaway from the WaPo piece.

Political journalists interested in accuracy need to center every news story on the frame most likely to be accurate, then point out the areas of possible doubt - not the frame that assembles the facts that are most easily proven and combines these with speculation, such as second hand witness accounts of alleged state of mind - as if anyone truly knows another person's true state of mind.

At the very least, WaPo and other news organizations need to face the reality that when they report accounts of state of mind or feeling, they are presenting opinions as facts, which jeopardizes the accuracy of their reporting. That correction would be a small step to improve reporting.

But the more important red flag in the article is the "To critics.." statement noted above. Each time a news reporter tries to boil down the facts to an argument between equal and opposite 'sides', they need to recognize that that is an improper frame. Their knee jerk tendency to do this is the reason we are in this mess today.

In fact, by this standard, perhaps WaPo news articles should note "To critics, the Washington Post is so-called 'fake news' that says whatever Jeff Bezos tells them to say..."

Monday, December 4, 2017

When Balance Is Unfair and Unreasonable

In Why a Lot of Important Research Is Not Being Done, Aaron Carroll presents a compelling case that industry groups and individual companies have been using the courts for decades as a tool to intimidate researchers whose findings threaten their revenue streams. His detailed examples of this chilling effect include the lead industry, gun manufacturers, surgeons who treat back pain, and manufacturers of dietary supplements.

But in a last paragraph nod to balance typical of pieces in the New York Times, Dr. Carroll notes that  "Lawsuits like these aren’t necessarily bound by ideology or partisan politics." citing the suit by Mark Jacobsen, has filed against "the National Academy of Sciences and the authors of a recent paper published in the academy’s journal, PNAS. The paper criticized Mr. Jacobson’s analyses that the United States could fully power itself with wind, water and solar energy. Many, including some identified as environmentalists, have criticized the lawsuit."

Now, in terms of simple logic, a single example of one "side" in contrast to many examples on the other "side", instead of supporting the proposition that "both sides do it" equally,  actually argues in favor of the proposition that both sides don't do it in equal measure. And, if it is worth mentioning at all, then the reader must wonder -
1) Is this just an example of a fragile ego prompting a lawsuit? Or,
2) Is there industry interference on one side (fossil fuels) or the other side (wind, solar, water)?

My own guess is that the boldness of Jacobsen's 100% renewables claim prompted healthy skepticism among academic researchers. But the Times article does not provide enough information for the reader to judge. And that's the problem. In the Times, the editor is biased in favor of any statement that suggests "balance" between two equal and opposite sides, which is accepted as a truism. Accepting balance in all situations regardless of the underlying facts without further examination meets the Times definition of objectivity.