Monday, July 16, 2018

The Problem With Appearances

The more extreme the overt actions of the U.S. President, the more compelled our U.S. traditional media feels they need to mince words.

So, the WaPo, behaving in the mold of the careful NYT, headline reads:

"Trump offers little pushback to Putin's denial of interference"
The problem of that headline is that it arises from a place of deliberate caution, rather than a place of reporting plain facts... from a place of expecting any U.S. president, acting in the interest of the United States, would, of course, finally, firmly call out Russia's attacks at the U.S. (Actually, not agree to meet with Putin.) Instead, the WaPo, determined that there is some kind of push back, decides to describe the "pushback" as "little", which renders the headline way off the mark.

CNN betrays its own problems reporting the facts with:

"An unprecedented refusal to believe his own intelligence agencies"

We do not know and can not know what another person believes. We only know what they say they believe. A person may lie. A person guilty of substantial wrongdoing is likely to deliberately lie. The strong possibility, nay, the likelihood that Trump has betrayed his country and, of course, knows that he and his team have worked with Russian for a long time means that he needs to deny the findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies in order to cut off all serious discussion of Russian operatives efforts to undermine democracy. After all, it's not just intelligence agencies at this point. The Department of Justice continues to issue indictments of Russians who have acted against the interests of the United States. That "unprecedented refusal to believe his own intelligence agencies" is old, old news at this point.

The dramatic breaking news that these organizations hold so dear, yet recoil from when the news is so astounding, is that Trump, fresh off his meeting with leaders of NATO countries who he attacked with ferocity, soon after meeting with G7 in Canada, whose leaders he also attacked, cozied up to Putin in Helsinki.

Even in their editorial Trump just colluded with Russia. Openly (granted, that title's an improvement), WaPo pulls their punches. Just because the truth is so shocking - that's my guess for this behaviot.

Twice in the editorial, WaPo tells us what Trump "appeared" to do. Think of the logic to that. He spoke openly and plainly. Yet, his statements can only be appearances.

"Mr. Trump appeared to align himself with the Kremlin against American law enforcement before the Russian ruler and a global audience."

If he only "appeared" to align himself with Putin, what is the source of the doubt? Was it something he said?

"As Mr. Trump apparently sees it, Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia, war crimes in Syria, poison attack in Britain and the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine are morally equivalent to the policies pursued by previous U.S. administrations."

Here we mix two prevalent flaws of mainstream media - shying away from accurate statements that would, if written, directly report an outrage by a politician, and, on a related note, telling us what a politician believes, even though we can not know what a person believes.

WaPo continues later in the editorial, "Incredibly, Mr. Trump appeared to endorse a cynical suggestion by Mr. Putin that Mr. Mueller’s investigators be granted interviews with a dozen Russian intelligence officers indicted in the DNC hack in exchange for Russian access to associates of William Browder, a financier whose exposure of high-level corruption and human rights crimes in Moscow led to the adoption by Congress of the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on those responsible. Mr. Putin’s citation of bogus Russian charges against Mr. Browder was matched by Mr. Trump’s garbled reference to “the Pakistani gentleman” who was falsely alleged by right-wing conspiracy theorists to be behind the leak of DNC emails."

Again, WaPo insists on reporting what Mr. Trump "appears" to be doing, yet, if they are so intent on reporting appearances, why not report that Mr. Trump appears to be acting as an agent of a foreign country, against U.S. foreign policy interests? Unfortunately, that reticence creates a loophole that Trumpian lackey propaganda outlets are happy to exploit.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Narrative vs. Counternarrative

Start with the tactic, then report the content.

Trump is a master at manipulation of news reporting. Journalists need to report tactics themselves fully as news items.
So when "Trump hosts citizens 'permanently separated' from loved ones", he is demonstrating his mastery of reclaiming the narrative, principally among his Republican supporters, that began to be lost with news reports on separation of young children from parents being kept in cages. Trump knows never to allow his opponents to establish the frame for his administrations actions or inaction. He knows that when a narrative takes hold against his administration, he needs to establish a counternarrative that directly attacks the opposing narrative so that his supporters will latch on to that counternarrative. Thus, the "permanent separation" of family members achieves the goal. "Permanent separation - death - is worse than temporary separation of children from parents. Score 1. And the visual of sympathetic victims - family members of citizens who were murdered or killed in car accidents (with the accidental nature of those deaths deemphasized for maximum effect) directly counters the crying child who has come to symbolize the current crackdown.

The point here is that Trump's defense, such as it is, is no defense at all. It is an example of his continued successful deflection from himself to others. The buck never stops here. For analogy, his staged 'permanent separation' event harks back to 2016 when Trump trotted out the Clinton accusers for a press conference right before the second debate, shortly after the Access Hollywood tape became public.

That which makes Trump appear most guilty calls for the most drastic accusations and visuals to create an equally compelling counternarrative. Of course, the 2016 campaign between Trump and Clinton was reduced to the negative views of Trump established based on reported facts vs. Trump's allegations against Clinton that only needed to be leveled in order to create and maintain the negative frame around her candidacy. Likewise, Trump's accusations against the FBI and the "deep state" are made to counter the frame of his team's close ties to Russia throughout the campaign and intensifying during his presidency. None of Trump's accusations against Clinton or leaders at the FBI and Justice (who happen to be Republicans) make him innocent. These are all examples of a pattern of guilty behavior.

For Trump, you fight accusations of sexual misconduct with accusations of sexual misconduct. Replace the frame with a like frame. Fight accusations of horrific family separation with accusations of horrific family separation. The full story never matters. All that matters is winning by replacing the frame of reality with a different frame more favorable to you.

Report the pattern of behavior first. Force the content to be secondary. "Nothing to see here, but look over there!" actually works best when the distraction is a false frame created by Trump because that sends otherwise responsible reporters fact checking his lies when their time would be better spent analyzing and accurately describing his devious patterns of behavior.

George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, has recently garnered attention to his suggestion that news media report Trump's lies using a "truth sandwich" approach. In Margaret Sullivan's "Instead of Trump's propaganda, how about a nice 'truth sandwich'?,

"First, he says, get as close to the overall, big-picture truth as possible right away. (Thus the gist of the Trump-in-Singapore story: Little of substance was accomplished in the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, despite the pageantry.) Then report what Trump is claiming about it: achievement of world peace. And then, in the same story or broadcast, fact-check his claims.

That’s the truth sandwich — reality, spin, reality — all in one tasty, democracy-nourishing meal."

But we need much more focused treatment than that example.

Whenever Trump says or does anything, first divine the purpose. Assume the worst, that he is being purely tactical. Report the tactic because that is really all that matters. Trump's claims are meaningless because he is all about tactics and lying whenever it is convenient. Fact checking is not an essential part of the story because the act of fact checking distracts from meaning and allows Trump to replace any true narrative with his own narrative. News organizations are still not getting that Trump uses their "fair and balanced reporting supported by fact checking" to make them unwitting tools for his own purposes. With the substantial support Trump gets from loyal Fox News, Republicans in Congress, and Putin, the news media needs to do a better job.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Shock But Not Surprise When Tactics Become Policy

When political tactics become more and more extreme with the only care winning on policy outcomes, the tactics themselves become a policy outcome.

For example, as we have pointed out, the repeated Republican congressional tactic of threatening government shutdowns - literally holding the functioning of the U.S. government hostage - as a nonnegotiable demand for desired tax or spending bills when the president is a Democrat, results in severe disruptions of the federal government. But that is OK with Republicans who, as a policy prescriptive, are ideologically opposed to a functioning federal government. This shaking of the government tree is discouraging to Americans who may see themselves as fulfilling a duty to their country by serving in government. To Republicans, that is a bad thing, unless they are serving in the military or serving in a federal department with the express intent of undoing the purpose for which that department is dedicated, such as State, Education, Interior.

Jonathan Chait clearly explains the Trump team motivation in "Why Trump Is Using Hostage Tactics on Family Separation."

Chait raises the issue of the government shutdowns as an example of hostage taking. But this time, as he points out, the hostages are actual children being separated from parents and held in cages. Trump is using these hostages in part to discourage immigration, but also to bargain for Democrats to agree to Republican demands on the details of immigration reform. As Chait points out, if Democrats accede to Republican demands, Republicans will continue to take and hold hostages to enact their desired legislation.

In the meantime, the tactic of holding immigrant children as hostages is itself a policy outcome, not just a tactic. In the U.S. we do not hesitate to hold children as prisoners. And, in 2018, it's only June. A lot can happen between now and the end of the year. Worse action from this administration will not be a surprise.

Blaming the Democrats

In February 2016 kicking off this blog I wrote in Six Points:

"Beyond the Pale
The strategy of employing pure adversarial tactics in order to win on policy results in actions that are so extreme as to go "beyond the pale". Unfortunately, these tactics are made subject to the "he-said/she-said" journalistic approach even by the objective press , which can make them especially effective."

Like the Muslim ban of the first days of the Trump administration, the current manufactured crisis on immigration is a standard Trumpian move. Act to create a crisis and make false claims about responsibility for that crisis.

Deny responsibility and accuse the Democrats. Take advantage of the inclination of the mainstream press toward false equivalence: "GOP, Democrats are outraged but at odds over ending family separation at the border"

Let's not forget, only six weeks ago, Kirstjen Nielsen was the one being berated for failure to separate families at the border. Trump berated her for a half hour in front of other cabinet members and she reportedly prepared to resign.

Compare the actual headline to a possible alternative:

Nielsen crumples to pressure from Trump, Sessions on separation of families at the border

OR  a headline, with a subheader:

Trump administration plows forward with family separations at the border, continues pattern - shun personal responsibility and blame Democrats, the party out of power. 

Under mounting pressure, Trump enlists First Lady to drive home false message

Those headlines exist in a fictional universe of straight, objective reporting of the news. When Trump falsely blames Democrats for his new policy of family separation, he is following his standard course of action that deflects all responsibility to opponents. Take credit whether or not merited and shun responsibility, even for one's own actions. In this case, tapping into the softer image of Melania to make a "both sides" plea is a truly cynical bad faith ploy.

Our objective news media has improved since 2016 by reporting lying, but they (Wapo and especially NYT) only reluctantly report patterns of behavior by politicians as news, preferring to relegate those to opinion columns. But opinion is the "maybe true, maybe false" category where good faith opinion columns based on factual evidence can coexist in an equal frame with bad faith opinion columns that rely on false and misleading evidence."

Just reporting lies is not enough. The type of lie - blaming Democrats or Obama - needs to be reported. Low information people who are not steeped in the daily rundown on politics only see the ongoing battle of two equal and opposite sides. And when Republicans hold all of the power in Washington, but like to pretend they do not, blaming the Democrats is ridiculous.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Meaning of Words

Our traditional press is much better at reporting individual events than they are at conveying meaning. Meaning is conveyed in narratives that link events with one another and with facts. But in politics as soon as a narrative is constructed that favors one "side" over another "side", that narrative is deemed "opinion" which is left to battle with other "opinions" on a level playing field.

Except the playing field is not level. One side cares about true, meaningful narratives and the other does not. And that side has Fox News.

And that's the problem.

George Lakoff, the linguist, comes at the problem from that perspective in "Trump has turned words into weapons. And he's winning the linguistic war." With the subheading "From ‘spygate’ to ‘fake news’, Trump is using language to frame – and win – debates. And the press operate like his marketing agency"

Lakoff makes the important point that  "As president of the United States, anything he says – true or false – is faithfully parroted by the press. This needs to change." True, but the press did this even before Trump was president, when he was only a candidate, because the daily outrages made good copy for the daily news cycle. So the challenge is even greater.

And our press is very bad at recognizing what Lakoff calls "framing" as well as related techniques used by propagandists. As Lakoff implores, "Reporting, and therefore repeating, Trump’s tweets just gives him more power. There is an alternative. Report the true frames that he is trying to pre-empt. Report the truth that he is trying to divert attention from. Put the blame where it belongs. Bust the trial balloon. Report what the strategies are trying to hide."

As Lakoff continues, "...don’t spread lies. Don’t privilege Trump’s lies by putting their specific language in the headlines, the leads or the hashtags. Don’t repeat the lies assuming people will automatically know they’re lies. People need to know the president is lying, but be careful about repeating the lies because “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth”. Repetition of lies spreads them."

Lakoff is right about all this. But, in order to do a better job, editors will need to recognize false balance and the false equivalencies that result from forcing "balance" reporting in a world of imbalance.

Bad Faith

In "How the conventions of political journalism help spread Trump’s lies" Greg Sargent takes traditional news outlets to task for their knee jerk 'two sides to every issue' reporting on the Inspector General report released yesterday. Keep in mind that the IG review only exists due to bad faith efforts by the president and the Republican leadership in Congress to discredit inquiry into the Trump campaign.

The very fact of journalists' efforts to maintain "balance" in political reporting betrays a weakness that ruthless politicians are willing to exploit. As a result, the journalistic commitment to the truth (using outmoded standards that rely on good faith, or, an idealistic belief that "the truth will out" or "no one will ever trust a liar") is the very thing that makes them report falsehoods as possibly true.

Sargent writes:

"One of the most important but overlooked lessons in the bombshell report on the handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation is that bad-faith, right-wing ref-working, via purely instrumental attacks on institutions, works. Buried in the report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general is evidence that former FBI director James B. Comey undertook actions that damaged Clinton’s candidacy, in part, because he had been spooked by such attacks."

And he continues:
"Right on cue, the news media’s coverage of the inspector general’s report is also confirming the same lesson: Bad-faith ref-working is producing its desired results once again.

The report’s core finding is that the FBI’s decision not to prosecute Clinton was untainted by bias or politics. This lays waste to one of the most important narratives pushed by President Trump and his allies in the quest to undermine special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation by claiming law enforcement is riddled with anti-Trump corruption.

But in many of this morning’s accounts about the report, you find versions of this additional claim: The IG report nonetheless provides fodder and ammunition to Trump and his allies to discredit Mueller’s probe.

Trump’s allies have widely cited the inspector general’s findings about the now-infamous texts between an FBI agent and lawyer — which do show animus towards Trump’s candidacy — as not just proof of anti-Trump bias at the FBI during the Clinton investigation, but also to bolster Trump’s argument that the Mueller probe into Russia-Trump campaign collusion is suspect.

Many news accounts inadvertently grant these arguments credibility, not just by quoting them, but also by claiming as fact that the conduct in question actually does lend support to those arguments. Yes, they also convey that the inspector general’s overall conclusion undercuts the Trumpian narrative. But the straddle itself is the problem. It showcases a convention often relied upon in political journalism — the use of the “lends fodder” formulation to float false claims alongside true ones — that has to go.

For instance, the New York Times quotes a Trump ally pushing his narrative, and then asserts as fact that “any independent criticism” of Comey “helps” Trump “undermine the credibility of someone who may be a crucial witness against him in any case of obstruction of justice.” The Associated Press claims the report gave Republicans “ample fodder” to “question” the Russia probe. The Post says the report will serve as a GOP “cudgel” against Mueller. CNN asserts that the inspector general gave Trump “fodder” to claim a “deep state” coup.

But here’s the problem: There is no neutral way to make this claim. Either the inspector general’s actual findings legitimately support that Trumpian argument about the significance of those findings, or they do not. To be sure, these accounts sometimes quote an interested party on the other side saying the findings don’t support the Trump/GOP interpretation. Yet this isn’t enough, particularly since these accounts also state as neutral fact, in the voice of the omniscient journalist, that the findings do indeed provide “fodder” for those arguments, effectively conferring legitimacy on the Trump/GOP interpretation of them.

This rewards bad-faith arguments. The IG report simply does not legitimately lend “fodder” to efforts to undermine the Mueller probe. Take the Times’ claim that the report may boost efforts to undermine Comey’s credibility as an obstruction witness. As David Leonhardt notes, the IG report doesn’t question Comey’s credibility; it questions his judgment in his handling of the Clinton case. So that claim adds meaning to the report that isn’t there, conferring legitimacy on the manipulation of the inspector general’s findings in service of a bad-faith assertion.

Or take the claim by Trump’s allies that the report’s demonstration of anti-Trump bias by two FBI employees means the Mueller probe is deeply suspect or illegitimate. That’s the “fodder” some accounts refer to. But describing this neutrally as fodder for that interpretation effectively endorses it. And this interpretation is just straight-up nonsense. As Brian Beutler and John Harwood point out, even if there are legitimate concerns about the FBI agent who texted about stopping Trump, the IG report showed, above all, that any such bias was institutionally prevented from impacting the Clinton probe and that the FBI’s conduct helped elect Trump. That agent got removed from the Mueller investigation. The claim that the report lends “fodder” to Trump’s attack on Mueller announces itself as true — even though it isn’t — by virtue of the fact that Trump is treating it as such.

Bad-faith attacks get rewarded"

And "Comey was worried that the FBI, which Trump and company assailed during the campaign as in the tank for Clinton, would be falsely accused of rigging the election if he didn’t go public. So he did, and this helped tip the election against her. The bad-faith attacks were rewarded.[emphasis added]"

And so on. This is not only a failure of the mainstream press to convey meaning with truthful reporting. It is a failure to recognize that they, the mainstream press, are the dupes of Republican attacks on democracy, and, by extension, Putin's attacks on American democracy and the Western alliance. Standard political reporting requires objectively reporting facts and relegating meaningful conclusions to a battle of arguments between two equal and opposite sides, both of which are as likely as each other to be acting in good faith and both of which need to tell the truth - otherwise, anyone lying loses credibility. That's the theory, but the theory is false. As Trump knows, you can say anything and they will believe you. He knows that works because he does exactly that and it works.

Sargent notes above that Comey adjusted his behavior in a manner that rewarded bad faith attacks. Sargent notes in his piece that the bad faith attacks are currently being rewarded by the press with their bending meaning to favor false interpretations of the IG report.

But bad faith is also rewarded by diverting attention away from other stories of corruption that is widespread and open. For example, now that we know so much more about the intertwining of the Trump campaign with Russia and Russian operatives, including Wikileaks, the Internet Research Agency, Cambridge Analytica, and so many others, in a sane world, we would be looking back at AG Sessions' Senate testimony denying any Russian contacts between the campaign and Russia.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

When Everything is Nothing

In The Incredible Lightness of Minimalism, I wrote:

"What I am calling "minimalism" is a lack of imagination tied to an antiquated standard that says political news reporters are not responsible for finding and reporting the truth - reporters are responsible for reporting "maybe facts" - claims and statements that reporters are to accept as true in  an almost "hands off" manner, until and unless "fact checking" establishes otherwise, or the "other side" refutes them in a debate based on reason, supported by facts. But what if that reliance on reason by "all sides" never comes? What if one "side" is happy with their truth supported by their claims?"

The larger point here is that traditional journalists, in order to maintain an appearance of objectivity, tread ever so lightly in instances of possible (or even likely) wrongdoing by holders of high office, that they bend over backwards to avoid unfair accusations - SO MUCH SO -- that their reporting becomes laughably understated.

So it is in the NYT "Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Made Millions in 2017" with the subheadline:

"Ethics experts have said the activity could raise questions of possible conflicts of interest."

"Ethics experts..."
OK, who are we to say? We are only reporters. Who are we to judge corruption?  In fact, we will avoid even mentioning the word "corruption" lest that lead anyone to jump to conclusions. Oops. I mean possible conclusions.

"Ethics experts have said the activity could raise questions..."

Just because we are bending over backwards to avoid the appearance of presenting information that supports potential accusations - accusations that we would never dare make (such as calling a lie a lie until after the first 10,000 or so lies). We dare not say "the activity raises questions..."

Which gives up the game.  The word "questions" provides enough doubt without the soft tone already embedded in the headline.

"...possible conflicts of interest".  Still so careful. "Possible". We are not even sure whether any conflict of interest exists. Our take is so far from the possibility of financial corruption that you would not even suspect the Justice Department is investigating anything. "Conflict of interest" falls short of conveying reality as it is, never mind qualifying it with "possible".

The article assiduously avoids citing specific examples in support of the possibility of corruption. When discussing Ivanka's take from the Trump International Hotel of $3.9 million, the article notes:
"The hotel, just steps from the White House, has prompted concerns from ethics experts, who worried that guests may be trying to curry favor with the president by staying there." But there are many specific examples of heads of state and foreign government reps who have stayed there.

At the end of the day, a literal reading of the headline equates to:

There may be no conflict of interest.

One might even conclude:

Nothing to see here. Experts agree.

And why does the Times avoid any mention of this:

Ivanka Trump Wins China Trademarks, Then Her Father Vows to Save ZTE?

Why? Because any objective observer would conclude that widespread corruption persists among the Trumps, that they are joined as a family in government dedicated solely to their own corrupt financial enrichment at the expense of the conduct of policy, foreign and domestic.

But don't count on that article either. The Times writer concludes that it's all a coincidence! Always the need at the Times to minimize the story.

Nothing to see there either!