Tuesday, May 8, 2018

When News Becomes Opinion and Opinion Becomes the News

What do we mean when we call something "News"? We mean an accurate report on what is actually happening. And, to be good and reliable, we expect that reporting to be supported by facts and to support a true narrative.

Unfortunately, journalistic standards applied by the NYT and other outlets require a certain "stepping away" from the story if politics is involved, presumably because all political reporters are presumed to be ruled by uncontrollable political bias that inevitably warps their ability to practice their chosen profession.

The result is a lot of reporting on politics - labeled "news" that fails the "what is really happening" test. And reporting on politics that is speculative regarding "what is really happening" that an organization like the NYT would consider "opinion" but which is better labeled "news", but with a caveat that the reporting represents a "best guess".

A case in point appears in the current New York Magazine. Notably in some versions the title is "Another Trump Affair Coverup?" and in others, it's "Here's a Theory About That $1.6 Million Payout From a GOP Official to a Playboy Model" by Paul Campos."
NYMag;Broidy, Bechard, and the original "Dennison"

The author, Paul Campos, makes a compelling case that Playboy model Shera Bechard was paid off $1.6 million to cover up an affair and pregnancy with Donald Trump, not Elliott Broidy per the story "leaked" to the NYT, WSJ, and CNN. (Interesting aside: when Team Trump wants credibility, they still leak to traditional news organizations despite Trump's persistent accusations of "fake news".)

As Campos states on the Broidy allegation, "This is the story that was leaked to the Journal — and to the New York Times, and CNN, which the Journal beat to the punch by publishing it first. It has since been repeated as fact by just about every major media outlet in the country. But there are good reasons to consider whether it might not be yet another audacious lie from Trumpworld." (Note: The "audacious lie" would fit into the category of the "Silver Bullet" described in "Both Sides Don't Do It" - in this case a fabrication, whether credible or not, that can be used on its own to discredit a truthful narrative in favor of a false narrative."

Campos lays out cogent arguments every step by step - under the following headings - to a reasonable conclusion:
The New David Dennison Sounds Exactly Like the Old Donald Trump
Elliott Broidy Seems Exactly Like Someone Who Would Pay $1.6 Million to Protect a Lucrative Influence-Peddling Business
Who Is Shera Bechard More Likely to Date?
It Doesn’t Make Sense That Davidson Would Have Reached Out to Cohen
The Sum of the Settlement Is Fishy
Are We Really Supposed to Believe That Broidy Wanted Cohen to Represent Him?
Broidy’s Actions Don’t Add Up

The article is a must read, but all you really need for evidence is the sum of the settlement - $1.6 million - and the relative unknown Broidy whose actions don't add up -  Broidy paying so much hush money, but then jumping at the chance to disclose "his" affair at the earliest opportunity.

But the NYT reporting April 13th was completely credulous in "RNC Official Who Agreed to Pay Playboy Model $1.6 Million Resigns". Despite knowing that Team Trump lies constantly, the NYT took the story first published in the WSJ as fact, presumably because it was an admitted embarassment, never stopping to question whether the objective was to hide a much bigger, more plausible, and potentially devastating embarassment to POTUS.

As to that admitted embarassment - the WSJ reported that Bechard terminated the pregnancy while the NYT made no such mention. Was the NYT editorial decision that the outcome of the pregnancy was irrelevant to the story? Or was the NYT thinking that making the abortion part of the story might make the reader start to wonder whether $1.6 million to Bechard and $130,000 to Stormy Daniels means that $1.3 million is the price to conceal an abortion on behalf of a sitting president who counts on the support of conservative Christians. And the NYT prefers the minimalist approach to political reporting on Republican officeholders and candidates. Until we have incontrovertible proof of politically explosive information, we can not posit plausible explanations for certain behaviors. We must shy away from damaging or incriminating stories until we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

So this is yet another case of the failure of mainstream journalists to update their standards to better handle the endless stream of lying from the powers that be. In this situation, the proper response would have been - 'OK, we are getting this embarassing information now leaked from people who lie all the time. That was easy. Why now? Should we believe it? Might there be a motive to lie about this? What do we think is going on here?'

The willingness of the NYT and others to report claims made by this administration as fact makes journalists a powerful tool for deception in the arsenal of duplicitous politicians.

Oh well. Maybe next time. Not.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

When Reporters are Accomplices

For journalism in modern America, false balance is the root of all evil. But false balance derives from "fair and balanced" journalism. So fair and balanced journalism is the source of all evil. How can that be? What can be wrong with fair? OK, nothing is wrong with fair. The problem is balance. But balance is not always wrong and balance in journalism worked pretty well in the 1970s. Times change.

Forcing balance in every news article about politics is a problem. Balance is not objectivity, but reporters try to use balance as a perfect proxy for objectivity. The fact that reporters on politics do this creates an opening that ruthless politicians and their allies at ruthless media outlets are willing to exploit to make the purveyors of false balance look and act like fools.

This site has many blog posts decrying False Balance. In our current political environment, with an extremist president and Congress, the failures of the false balance squad emerge in new formats.

Jay Rosen's "What savvy journalists say when they are minimizing Trump’s hate movement against journalists"
breaks this down for us with numerous examples, noting "To the uninitiated it may look like a fight. Actually, it's a dance, they tell us." and "For two years I have been tracking a speech pattern among American journalists, in which they try to explain to us — and perhaps to themselves — why Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit them is not what it seems, why it’s no big deal."

Several examples are taken from the some of the usual suspects from Politico, Vox, and ever the New York Times. Rosen's brief, trenchant essay culminates in:

"So that’s the pattern I wanted to show you. What are we to make of it? First, the speakers in this post make valid points. Among them are: 

* In Turkey journalists are being arrested. Independent media has been absorbed into the state. Nothing like that is happening in the U.S. 

* Journalists can still report freely and publish what they find. As far as we know, Trump’s worst threats on that score have not materialized. 

* The civic emergency created by Trump’s election has been good for the media business, and good for writers who wish to be read. 

* Reporters on the White House beat find sources eager to talk and an almost unlimited supply of big, important stories to chase. 

* Trump is desperate to be liked. He craves press attention. He is a media animal. These facts modify his public expressions of disdain for journalists. 

I do not contest the truth of these observations. Journalists are right to point them out, and we should factor them into our understanding of events. 

But I do dissent from the larger theme of a “phony war.” Something quite dangerous is happening. I have put my arguments for that proposition into an essay for New York Review of Books. You can read it here. It begins, “There is alive in the land an organized campaign to discredit the American press. This campaign is succeeding.” 

So what is going on here?

I would argue, by inference from these behaviors, that for the traditional, objective media, standards of reporting news about a president who appears to behave very badly require strict adherence to a standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt". That is, the more extreme Trump's behavior, the more compelled these reporters feel to report only the facts and deliberately avoid collecting those facts into identifiable patterns that would point to extreme levels of guilty intent.

And to the extent Trump's patterns of behavior, and those of his inner circle, appear to indicate malfeasance and criminal acts, the more inclined these reporters are to push themselves to concoct innocent explanations for these statements and actions. In order to be "unbiased", the so-called objective reporters act as proxies for the administration.

Basically, if it has not happened yet, it's not going to happen could be their motto. Reporters have not yet been locked up. Hillary Clinton has not been put in jail yet, so it could never happen and must be taken as a joke, or bad form.

The endgame may not be locking up journalists, but totally discrediting them. If the coalition of the Trumpanistas and loyalist Republican voters are able to maintain the electoral advantage through hook or by crook, then there is no need to lock up the journalists. Their articles can be called fake news when reporting is negative on Trump and Republicans and weaponized as "real" news when weaponized as balanced favorable reporting on Trump.

In a way, the situation reminds me of the days prior to the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait when reporters briefed by "senior government officials" were told that Saddam Hussein was "saber rattling". News reporting at the time, at the NYT and other outlets, tended to accept the Bush administration depiction. Sure, that intelligence assessment might have been accurate, but simple common sense suggests that gradually amassing up to 100,000 troops and all of the necessary weapons of war along the border of a small country rich in oil is the logical first step to a rapid strike.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Pressing the Press to Change

In the original Six Points thesis from February 14, 2016, we set forth a diagnosis of the current American political challenges under the following headings:
1. Constitution sets the Framework
2. Exactly Two Parties
3.Inevitable Polarization
4.Inevitable Progress
5.Why Conservatives Fracture
6. Playing to Win

The Key Conclusions further down that page referred to Pressure Points - Moderate Republicans and the objective journalists needed to rethink their standard response to the breakdown of the American political system. Otherwise we would continue to witness Republican party tactics that go Beyond the Pale in a system that would continue to degenerate.

Basically, if moderate Republicans and objective journalists did not find a way to change their behavior and standards, our system would eventually collapse. The Wheels of Democracy discussed the state of American democracy on November 10, 2016.

In the current New York Review of Books, Jay Rosen writes an update on the media portion of this equation in Why Trump is Winning and the Press is Losing.

My writing has focused on the supply side - what the responsible members of the press need to change. Rosen brings in the demand side, discussing the grave danger of a president who sees the press as the enemy and commands a movement of angry trolls.

He divides the Trumpified electorate into three groups:
1. Core supporters, for whom "media hate helps frame the president as a fighter for them."
2. Committed opponents, for whom"the president’s political style works by inviting ridicule and attack. Their part in the script is simply to keep the culture war going through reflexive responses to the awfulness of the Trump phenomenon. The anger, despair, and disbelief that Trump inspires in his most public doubters is felt as confirmation, and consumed as entertainment by his most committed supporters—and his trolls. Notice how if Trump’s opponents defend the reporting of an institution like The New York Times (or simply make reference to it as revealed fact), that supports his campaign to discredit the press as a merely ideological institution."
3. All Others - "Americans who are neither committed supporters nor determined critics of Donald Trump. On them, the campaign to discredit the press works by generating noise and confusion, raising what economists call “search costs” for good information. If the neither-nors give up and are driven from the attention field, that is a win for the president as the polarizer-in-chief."

His piece is a must-read. In it, he goes on to say:
"There is a risk that journalists could do their job brilliantly, and it won’t really matter, because Trump supporters categorically reject it, Trump opponents already believed it, and the neither-nors aren’t paying close enough attention."

Rosen makes a strong point that aligns with points made on this blog. For example, he notes the failure of fact checking:
"There is a risk that established forms of journalism will be unable to handle the strain that Trump’s behavior places upon them. For example, the practice we came to call fact-checking has had zero effect in preventing the president from repeating falsehoods. There is a risk that the press will hang onto these forms well past their sell-by date because it’s what they know. They want things to be normal."

And Rosen brings up his 2010 notes on the "View from Nowhere" by which he means "the attempt to acquire authority by constructing an artificial impartiality, by 'performing objectivity.' We have described this problem as newsrooms practicing objectivity by acting as an umpire between two opposing sides when they need to act as a scientist, researching and examining the evidence and drawing conclusions based on facts. See To Boldly Go Where No Journalist Has Gone Before or almost any blog posts under False Balance or try Framing.

Yet the problem persists, especially at the New York Times where today, the headline "Republicans on House Intelligence Panel Absolve Trump Campaign in Russian Meddling", a work in classic NYT false balance notes "... strikingly divergent conclusions closed a chapter for a congressional committee that, while charged with oversight of American spy agencies, has fractured into warring factions that often seemed to see the advancement of political agendas as their primary mission."[emphasis added]

There it is. Always at the NYT, not matter what happens, the intractable working premise is that American politics consists of two equal and opposing sides that can always accurately be equated in their actions. In this case, if Republican behavior is commitment to their political agenda, then opposition by Democrats to that behavior is automatically the exact same phenomenon - commitment to political agenda. Even if it isn't. And even when the slow drip, drip, drip continues with a companion headline in NYT just above it today! - Russian Lawyer Had Closer Ties to Kremlin Than She Let On.
Dmitry Serebryakov/Associated Press

We wouldn't have wanted the House panel to investigate that, now would we?
With Veselnitskaya shown above, Michael Cohen, and Rudy Giuliani, more to come on the role of lawyers in furthering obfuscation.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Bias toward Balance

We hear a lot these days about our political polarization in the U.S., often as if just calling our society "polarized" expresses a self-evident, simple truth, not so much due to the actions of individuals as it was the result of various forces including the changes in the ways news reporting is generated and distributed as technology has advanced over recent decades.

But that so-called "polarization" is taken as accepted wisdom and used as the starting point for many an essay on politics. Like false balance and false equivalence, belief in "polarization" does not violate traditional norms of journalism when used as the premise for a political article (despite defying simple logic).

The traditional norm in the U.S is. to refer to Republicans and Democrats as two equal and opposite sides. Both parties have political agendas with respect to political issues. Politicians in both parties have strengths and weaknesses. Both parties have proposals for laws to advance their agendas.

This standard view of the political world means that if a group of viewers likes to watch Fox News for information, then the opposite of Fox News would have to be an opposing cable channel , MSNBC. Any claims that MSNBC and Fox News are qualitatively different with starkly divergent professional standards would violate the tradition of forced balance.

And so we see how an idealistic, but outdated standard that equates fairness and objectivity with balance translates into attempts at balance that are forced. False statements are given weight equal to true statements. Purveyors of falsehoods do not deserve to be treated with credibility. Credibility granted to habitual liars makes them stronger than the truthful because honest reporters waste valuable time and energy fact-checking the lies of habitual liars. When a liar makes a baseless claim without a shred of evidence because his followers believe in a fundamental "truth" regardless of lack of supporting facts, the honest reporter may not have the evidence to disprove the lie or even to prove that no such evidence exists. Thus does mendacity trump truthfulness.

As an example, take "Smearing Robert Mueller - Sean Hannity and others are blaming the special counsel for one of the F.B.I.’s worst scandals. But there is no evidence to back up their charges."

Surprise, surprise.

As the judge who presided over the relevant trial, Nancy Gertner rebuts the allegations by Dershowitz, Hannity, and others to implicate Robert Mueller in the imprisonment of four men wrongfully convicted of murder. This pattern keeps being repeated. Hannity or some other "conservative" levels an accusation without regard to the truth. Someone who cares more about the truth (which makes that person a suspected "liberal" or, just as bad, a suspected "Democrat"), writes a detailed essay to rebut the reckless claims. After which, Dershowitz or Hannity  doubles down on the discredited accusation - in this case, Dershowitz's states that "absence of evidence is not conclusive evidence of absence". In other words, Dershowitz is happy to make serious accusations of wrongdoing whether or not the evidence exists, primarily because the accusations support a strongly held belief he maintains.

The accusation against Mueller falls into a repeated pattern that conservatives find works well for them. Level a single serious accusation against a person who stands in your way, like Robert Mueller. Whether or not the accusation is true, supported by facts,  or even relevant to the current issue (the integrity of the Mueller investigation), use that single accusation (which is really a distraction) to claim that the Mueller investigation is therefore discredited.

So, Mueller's exemplary professional career means nothing, but a single smear supports a cherished belief and that becomes enough evidence. Meanwhile, Trump, a man who constantly lies to gain advantage, is given credence by Team Trump.

Ultimately, the polarization in the U.S. is not between conservatives and liberals or Republicans and Democrats. The polarization is between those who constantly prevaricate (along with their ardent supporters) and those who respect the truth.

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.