Thursday, November 15, 2018

Election Fallout

We are getting some interesting post-election fallout.

Doug Heye, whose HarvardKennedySchool bio touts "In 2010, Heye served as communications director of the Republican National Committee. Heye excelled in his handling of multiple large-scale public relations crises and pursuing an aggressive media strategy", citing as an example that he "was a player in the 2010[sic] Florida Recount, participating in Miami/Dade’s famed “Brooks Brothers Revolt."

Since when do Republican strategists, current or former, so readily admit to an active measure. It's obvious they aggressively kneecap Pelosi precisely because she is so effective, but to admit the truth? Never. But times change.

Their target audience is not just voters - giving loyal Republicans, especially Trumpists a target for all that hate, but Democratic members of Congress foolish enough not to perceive their game. For Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and others, it's hard to ignore that constant frame of the "hated" Pelosi, which crowds out the accurate frame of the "effective" Pelosi.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

One of these "Senators" Is Not Like the Others

Conservatives understand the power of the frame and manage to keep one step ahead of their opponents in this realm. In 2000, the Miami Dade demonstrations on behalf of democracy looked like this:
But Democrats caught on and, after some research, this not-so-spontaneous demonstration late came to look like this:
This showing by Republican operatives who descended on the Miami/Dade vote count has been dubbed the Brooks Brothers Riot, a mocking label that is unusually catchy and apt for one affixed to a group of Republicans.

In 2018, with Republicans again determined to stop counting votes in Florida, another "spontaneous" riot might not fool folks quite so easily. As Bush the Younger has taught us  "Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.'"

No, do not misunderestimate Republicans. You can count on Mitch McConnell, inventor of the 'Biden rule' to set the frame:

"We're here this morning to welcome our six new Republican Senators." said McConnell. Notice how MSNBC repeats the framing with their chyron, doing the work for McConnell in the photo, even while noting that Scott is not elected as of this date:

Actually, McConnell welcomes new GOP Senators-elect and purported Senator-elect Rick Scott to his office, but that is a mouthful. By being the first to set the frame, by framing Scott as the elected Senator, McConnell puts Democrats on the defensive. By casually grouping Scott with the five elected Senators in a photo op, McConnell visually removes any doubt about Scott's current status, despite the continuing counting of votes in the Florida senatorial election. This photo op puts Democrats in a defensive posture, having to insist on the legitimacy of vote counting.

This jumping to the front of the line -pretending that something exists that does not and something that does exist does not - is something Democrats never do. It's not in their nature. Democrats are more inclined to work within reality. Republicans do whatever it takes to win, and if that means embracing an alternative to reality, so be it. But it works.

News organizations like CNBC could react to a staged photo of a meeting that is designed solely to frame this issue, with their own more accurate label that recognizes how they are being used by McConnell. How about:

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Warning Signs of Failing Journalism

In About this Blog we refer to red flags as public statements or actions by public officials or their supporters that are better explained by the Six Points model than the current left-right equivalence model.". We can overcome the problems indicated by these red flags if other responsible parties understand how their role needs to adapt to this environment. An example of a red flag is the singling out of opponents such as the Washington Post (usually personalized by Trump in Jeff Bezos or Amazon as a corporation) and CNN's Jim Acosta.

When journalists continue to behave in accord with outmoded journalistic standards of objectivity, certain missteps and shortcuts that worked in the distant past stand out as warning signs.

Certain phrases frequently used by journalists are such warning signs.

Without evidence has been discussed here. Journalists who use that phrase in their reporting are ducking responsibility.

Both sides has been discussed extensively in posts with the label False Balance.

"The president believes" is a phrase journalists frequently use. But reporters have no idea what the president believes, or anyone else for that matter. We know what people say and do and may draw conclusions, but those conclusions are opinions, at least if these same reporters cared to apply their standards regarding the separation of fact from opinion consistently. In the case of this president, who appears to have no core beliefs in the sense we expect of most all human beings, attempting to isolate "beliefs" he may have and to state that he has them is a convenient shortcut, but such a statement is unprovable and likely false or meaningless.

Kevin Cirilli is guilty of this journalistic malpractice. Today he reported from the Capitol that "This is a president who believes that that type of rhetoric will help him not just with his base but in swing states..." If that is the case, where is the quote from Trump? Why not play the video of that statement? Because the video does not exist, Cirilli is observing Trump's behavior and attributing both motive and calculation, when a reasonable observer might otherwise observe ---this is the president's behavior. He fires up the base. Win or lose, he claims victory. The reality is that this president lies all the time and as Paul Krugman writes today[emphasis added]:

"Do Republicans really believe that there were vast numbers of fraudulent or forged ballots? Even asking that question is a category error. They don’t “really believe” anything, except that they should get what they want. Any vote count that might favor a Democrat is bad for them; therefore it’s fraudulent, no evidence needed."

So what's the big deal with these journalistic shortcuts? They occur right at the juncture where the lies and reality collide. When honest reporting fails there, it fails at exactly the place where the public record can most readily be set straight. Attributing beliefs to Trump, ironically without evidence, out of journalistic laziness normalizes him without justification. Journalists and their editors consider this acceptable, not just for convenience, but because covering Trump without always trying to normalize grossly abnormal human behavior, even accurately, would violate their requirement to soften factual reporting that might come across as opinion because it is grossly negative - critical of Trump by its very nature, which we cover in The Problem with Appearances.

In the end, instead of fact checking the statements made by Trump, journalists need to reality check their own writing.

More to follow in a related vein: "Critics of the president" and "What Democrats need to do"

Monday, November 12, 2018

Without Evidence is Not Good Enough

"Without evidence, Trump alleges forged ballots in Florida, calls for halting recounts" reads the top headline in the Washington Post. There it is again. It never stops. That pesky qualifier "Without evidence..." followed by an outrageous claim.

So that frames the issue as two sides, where one side introduces a new topic - a charge of a crime, so far an nonexistent crime --- "without evidence" gives it away.  Pretending your political opponent has committed a crime tells  us that you, the accuser may just as credibly be committing a crime and covering it up by being the first to frame the issue (see Lakoff) or maybe just "suppressing" the counting of ballots.

What is a legitimate news organization to do?

The Miami Herald's "Trump, Scott and Rubio continue to push claims of Florida voter fraud without evidence" does better. But something is missing.

First of all, center every story on the most credible narrative at the moment, not on the most outrageous statement or action of Trump or anyone else. Make the headline reflect that reality. As part of that effort, resist the impulse to center the subject of the headline on a person making a claim. If the process is so important, which voting is, then make the headline about that to improve the accuracy and the reader's best understanding of what is happening.

So remove Trump as the subject of the sentence. Make it Election, Ballots, Voting, or Voters.

"Without evidence.." should never be the start or even part of a headline on any important matter. Never.

Accurate count of Florida ballot threatened by unsubstantiated claims of Trump, Scott, and Rubio.

That's better, but something is still missing.

Isn't making accusations without any evidence an "outrageous" claim? How hard would it be to cite evidence if the claim has any credibility? Then call it "outrageous" when it is outrageous.

Accurate count of Florida ballot for Senator and Governor threatened by outrageous claims of Trump, Scott, and Rubio.

That's it! And isn't that the real story?

Sunday, November 11, 2018

It's the Fact Pattern, Stupid!

Let's take a look at this tweet from Adam Goldman of NYTimes fame:

Some of the replies are apt. What the Times might call "critics of Mr. Goldman go into detail about contrasts between Whitaker and Robert Kennedy with persuasive arguments, but the most compelling is "this is classic whataboutism". When the president does this, it's all about distraction, denial, deflection, and accusations. When a reporter does it on behalf of the President because NYT reporting standards so dictate, then he or she is carrying his water.

Goldman's tweet and the referenced article demonstrate the problem that false balance creates as it feeds into the favored narrative of this president. Clearly, the Times method of political reporting  requires looking at something Trump does and then, instead of a laser like focus on the context, dictates that they research comparable actions that a Democrat took as president. Due to the power of framing, magnified by any mention of the Kennedy's, this creates a greater persuader for the argument - See, the Democrats did it, so it is all right. And even if it's not all right, the Democrats do it and there is nothing you can do because that's politics. Or, more dangerously - "see, it happens all the time, so Trump is not as bad as you think, Democrats. And, moderate Republicans, nothing to worry about here - go back to your personal business and good times!"

The proper context requires reporting the nomination of Matthew Whitaker as part of a sequence of actions to quash Mueller's investigation. It's a fact pattern, stupid! Many of those steps were taken under false pretenses, which includes the firings of Comey, McCabe, and Strzok, and significantly, the appointment of Whitaker as AG Sessions' chief of staff a year ago.

A WaPo piece that places the Whitaker appointment in proper context ( and which could go much further, but for the constraints of space) is Aaron Blake's "Almost everything about Matthew Whitaker’s appointment is problematic". I know, it make's you wonder. You say, "Aaron, how is it you do not mention Bobby Kennedy in your article?"

Now, the NYT article by Mark Landler that mentions Kennedy, goes on to say, "...there was no precedent for installing a political crony as attorney general at the very moment he could decide the fate of a federal investigation involving the president." That's point, New York Times! You don't try to cram the facts into a story that forces balance between two equal and opposite sides in a never-ending search to report equivalance at all times in all things regardless of what the evidence tells us. Instead, examine the evidence and tell us what the truthful narrative is...which requires a careful examination of context. And you do not get to context by going back almost 60 years and starting a debate about the facts of that time and the story those facts may or may not tell, which may or may not compare in important ways.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

With Fear or Favor

We often think of the strength that comes with great numbers of people acting together as one, but there are forces working against that.

Individual journalists were singled out this week by Trump. (OK, there are journalists and"journalists".)

Trump singled out Hannity and friend Pirro for favor, inviting them to join him up onstage at his rally.

And CNNs Jim Acosta was singled out for fear, his White House press credentials revoked.


The details of the treatment of Acosta do not really matter. The Trump White House has been building up to this making CNN and Acosta in particular his punching bag. CNN is the greater threat to Trump, not MSNBC. Trump supporters ignore MSNBC as biased, but CNN has a history of inviting Trump apologists, not just Republicans and conservatives, as talking heads to position themselves as "fair and balanced". That makes CNN harder to ignore.

This is all about the authoritarian demonstration of his power. See, I can revoke your press pass and your livelihood is gone. There is nothing you can do about it. I can lie about my reason for doing this, everyone knows I am lying, and there is still nothing you can do about it. I revoked Brennan's security clearance - a clear demonstration of power, and there was nothing any of you could do about it. In fact, I can grant my son-in-law, Jared Kushner a security clearance, and there is still nothing you can do about that either.  I can fire Comey and any other witnesses Mueller may find to my antics -  McCabe, Strzok. In McCabe's case, firing him just before eligibility for full pension was the point - the intimidation factor matters. And humiliation.  Picture Rex Tillerson getting the news of his firing on the toilet.

Under the authoritarian mentality, I define reality. So each of these victims to my ritual humiliation is made to look weak and, therefore, something of a loser,and therefore someone who is wrong, morally weak and morally wrong. That becomes the frame in which I define truth. The ritual humiliation is important, the signaling ahead of time - Sessions has been dangled for months - that even when you know the hit is coming, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

The authoritarian relies on fear --- and dispersal of the opposition into individual atoms. No one wants to be singled out for the hit and will think twice before taking action against the authoritarian. That's the point.

Greg Sargent explains how this authoritarianism works.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Hothead But Not a Liar II - Tactics for Truth

The Washington Post fact checker tells us President Trump has made 6,420 false or misleading claims over 649 days So what? Is that different from 323 false or misleading claims? How about 2.3 million false or misleading claims. Well, here at WaPo, we believe in fair and balanced he said/she said journalism. We report the facts and let you decide based on the evidence.

But the only reason to report in detail on so many outright lies is to tell citizens that any reasonable person should not believe anything that Trump says. If Alec Baldwin can be called a "hot-head" in a political news story because he is a hot-head, surely Trump can be called a liar in every news story about him that includes a claim by him. "Lying Donald Trump says a 400 pound man may have done it" or "Lying Donald Trumps says 'maybe it's Tchina'". This approach would eliminate the need for reporters to lamely state "Trump claims, without presenting evidence..." Yeah. No kidding. Without evidence because he lies all the time.

George Lakoff comes as close as anyone to pinning down the news media for their kid gloves treatment of Trump based on his research over decades. Lakoff explains why fact checking is a recipe for failure.  See his Medium piece "A Blitzkrieg Strategy of Lies and Distractions."

Lakoff's writing is compelling:

"Trump’s “big lie” strategy is designed to exploit journalistic convention by providing rapid-fire “news” events for reporters to chase. Trump spews falsehoods in a blitzkrieg fashion, but the lies are only part of the game. What reporters continue to miss is the strategy behind the big lies: to divert attention from big truths. The technique is simple: create controversy and confusion around politically-charged topics to stoke his conservative base and distract from stories that harm Trump.

It’s a numbers game. The more he can get his key terms and images repeated in the media — even as “fact checks” — the more he wins. That’s just how our brains work. The more we hear about something, the more it sticks. Even if it’s not true. When I say “don’t think of an elephant,” it forces you to think of an elephant. Repeating lies, even to debunk them, helps spread and strengthen them. The scientific evidence is clear."

As Lakoff tells us, "Trump’s success is rooted in the media’s tendency to amplify, rather than analyze, his tactics." Lakoff recommends a "truth sandwich", that is, placing the lie between two truths at all times in any coverage, which does not seem adequate either.

Trump's strategy has been enormously successful. Fill in the blank: "Lyin' ___" Or how about "Crooked _______". You don't need help. You know the answers. Funny how the most appropriate and accurate response, though, is 'Trump" in both cases. But that's why he instinctively does that. What better way to distract. And that tells us the best approach. For each specific lie, there is a specific purpose- a denial, distraction, deflection, accusation, and so on that can be identified. In some cases this is speculation, but that is OK. Better to be accurate about treating a tactic as a tactic, which it always is, rather than treat Lyin' Trump's statements as possibly true inputs for the fact checking machine.

Which gets us back to "hot-headed actor Alec Baldwin. OK, if that works, then if Trump makes a claim that is false, and a fact checking reporter determines the statement is false, why not lead that news article with "Lyin' Trump says...". That kind of reporting sounds aggressive, but it would put both Trump and his supporters ( who have by the way embraced lying as a successful tactic) on notice that their little tricks have met some opposition, some tactics for truth. If 10 lies a day does not a liar make, what does? And if the article on Trump does not report Trump lying, then don't refer to him as "Lyin' Trump" in that article. Which is actually a gentle approach, though, to avoid snarkiness, I would suggest "Lying Trump" or "The Lying President" over "Lyin'"

Sometimes Trump is not lying as much as bluffing. This week he felt the need to say that he would raise the troop levels at the border from 5,200 to 15,000. Then he brought up changing the rules of engagement to have troops shoot at anyone who picks up a rock. Wait a second, this caravan of mostly women and children is hundreds of miles away, trying to escape to live in the U.S., and now they are expected to pick up rocks in a threatening manner against the military? of course that makes no sense, but see what he did there?  By raising the stakes, he kept the threat of violence on the people from Central America and away from the white nationalist terrorists who struck this week - one who sent bombs to prominent Democrats, another who committed mass murder at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and yet another who tried to enter a predominately black church, failed, and then murdered a black man and a black woman nearby. My guess is that many Americans missed that last example and many others already forget about it. Trump wants us to forget. And he really does not want us thinking about the two young Saudi women bound together and thrown in the Hudson River off NYC. Because that reminds us about Khashoggi --- and Yemen.

Trump only needs to make his claims and threats to achieve the intended effect - to focus attention on the border with Mexico and away from these horrors.

At the end of the day, political reporting is just one subject of reporting. If the result is deficient, and the truth does not prevail, then remedial action is required. Political reporters who wring their hands and say "We are just doing what we need to do - reporting the facts" are wrong and need to start doing their job. It may not be easy, but it's not as hard as they make it sound.