Saturday, March 26, 2016

How the media really created Trump

This NYTimes op-ed claims to diagnose the press's failings with regard to Trump, but in its first sentence demonstrates how little press understands the problem. The problem isn't with Trump, but with the press.

The reason for Trump is that the press has discarded its principle of "objectivity". Reasonable people disagree. The failing of the press is that they misrepresent one side, the Republicans, as being unreasonable. You see that in the op-ed above, where the very first sentence decries the "Republican Party’s toxic manipulation of racial resentments". In fact, both parties are equally reasonable, or unreasonable as the case may be, with regards to race.

The article suggests the press should have done more to debunk Trump in the"form of fact checks and robust examination of policy proposals". But the press doesn't do that for Democrats, so why should a Republican candidate they don't like get singled out? No amount of attacking Trump sticks because the press is blatantly unfair.

Hillary clearly is complicit in the "Benghazi" affair, because she led the charge to inject weapons into Libya to take down Ghadaffi, then ignored Chris Steven's efforts to clean up the mess. Hillary's use of her own email server was clearly an attempt to bypass transparency rules and conduct underhanded diplomacy, as the now public emails show. Yes, it's true that there are some invalid Republican attacks on these issues that are blatantly partisan. But the press is less interested in holding Hillary accountable for these failures, and more interested in portraying Republicans as unreasonable by focusing on those partisan attacks.

Since the press doesn't attack Obama or Hillary, the public will never see any attack against Trump as fair. The article points out that Politifact rates Trump as more dishonest than the other candidates. But that's because it debunks virtually everything Trump says, while at the same time, not doing the same for Democrats. Populist rhetoric by any candidate should get the same treatment, but doesn't. Trump is a populist demagogue, so of course what he says is going to have little relation to the truth, but nobody is going to believe this accusation when you are obviously so unfair about fact checking. Bernie is also a populist demagogue, but there's little serious effort to debunk what he says.

These biases I mention are obvious to anybody outside the system. I'm a Libertarian, so I have equal disdain for both parties. In theory, Libertarians slightly favor the Republican rhetoric on the free market, but since Republican politicians never deliver on this, we slightly favor Democrat practical results on individual freedoms (e.g. acceptance of homosexuality). My point is that as somebody with some objectivity on the parties, the inability of the press to be objective is obvious to me.

Every time I bring this up, the press counters with "false balance", a term they've concocted to justify their biases. So let's pick the least partisan topic, that of "vaccines causing autism" to demonstrate the falseness of "false balance".

To start with, we agree that there's absolutely no link between vaccines and autism, and that the science is clear on this, and that only crazy/stupid people would think their is a link.

The thing is, the policy question is almost unrelated to the science question. Whatever the science says, the policy question is still whether the government can force people to get vaccines (or parents to vaccinate their child). There are two sides to this issue. On one side is the "choice" question of whether it's a person's choice what to do with their body. For example, in the abortion debate there is often the analogy of whether people can be forced to donate a kidney, or to give a bone marrow transplant. Moreover, while they don't cause autism, vaccines do sometimes cause complications, so there is a risk (albeit tiny), to the person receiving the injection. On the other hand, vaccines are fundamentally unlike all other health issues, with vast benefits to be derived from "herd immunity" when everyone getting a vaccine. For example, the measles vaccine is imperfect, so when enough people shirk their duty to get vaccinated, even some vaccinated people may catch the disease.

The point being is that we have a clear, two-sided policy debate here, quite apart from the crazies.

More importantly is the way the press uses this issue to smear Republicans, in much the same way that I describe above with the way the NYTimes smear Republicans with race issues. Consider this story from CNN "Chris Christie sidesteps vaccine science". All Christie said was, in response to the policy issue, that most of the time it's the parent's choice, which reporters unfairly extended to a position that "sidesteps science". Obama's spokesman said much the same thing only days prior to this event, but didn't get smeared like Christie. In fact, whereas most candidates take the policy position that its always the parent's choice, Christie took the position that sometimes the government can override parent's choice when it's important. But, that CNN article, and many other press articles at the time, smear Christie as somehow supporting anti-vaxxers.

The press likewise ignore Democrats on this issue, who pander just as much to the anti-vaxxers as any Republicans. In 2008, candidate Obama said "We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included". Candidate Hillary said "I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines". The science was as clear then as it is now that there's no link.

No politician (except Trump, of course) is on the anti-vax side, but at the same time, they don't want to needlessly antagonize potential voters. Most take the policy position supporting parental/personal choice, but rather than condemning idiots/crazies for their bad science, simply say things like "well, as a parent, I get my kids vaccinated". Trump, of course, goes full anti-vax, but once the press has already shown themselves to be corrupt and biased on this issue, what they say about Trump is no longer trusted.

Finally, let's talk "science". Members of the press stick up for the principles of science when it's convenient and supports their beliefs, but otherwise attack science. Science says the same things about the autism-vaccine link as it does chiropractics, anti-oxidants, gluten-free, organic produce, and a whole lot of other subjects. The high-end grocery store Whole Foods is a shrine to anti-science, promoting all these things. Yet, many reporters I know shop at Whole Foods, for anti-oxidants and other nonsense.

Whether or not you judge somebody as an "anti-science crazy" that should be ignored because of "false balance" depends entirely upon which scientific issue you are discussing.

Thus, I've disproved your theory of "false-balance" three separate times here. Even while I agree that anti-vaxxers are crazy and shouldn't be interviewed on the issue, I've nonetheless shown how the press is unable to deal with the either policy question or science question fairly, and moreover, uses this issue to unfairly smear politicians they don't like.

It's not just the anti-vax issue that is the problem. Pick any partisan "false balance" issue, and it'll have the same problem of media bias, where they justify their corrupt behavior.

Half the population, even a large chunk of Democrats, agree with Trump's idea that we should ban Muslims from coming into this country. I have as much distaste for this idea as you do, I hate it with unbridled passion. But here's the thing: if half the population of the country believes a wrong thing, it's by definition "reasonable". It's like in the old days when countries were split half-and-half between Protestantism and Catholicism. One side had to be wrong. They couldn't accept the other half as reasonable, and took the scorched earth approach -- literary scorching the fields during Europe's religious wars that killed half the population. Today, there's not a single Protestant on the Supreme Court, and nobody cares, because we've gotten past our differences. It's where the term "bigotry" came from, about tolerating those who disagree with you.

The same logic applies here. Instead of suppressing Trump's supporters on the farcical claim of "false balance", let's bring them out into the light and debate this issue like reasonable people. Shouting them down for being racists, as we do now, changes neither their minds nor their votes. Tolerating them as being reasonable (but wrong) people, as they certainly are, can change minds. Let's discuss Muslims we know. Let's discuss how America is the shining light throughout the world for people yearning to be free, and how we sully ourselves by closing borders. Let's argue our point as if it has to stand on its own merits, rather than being our ideology.

Nicholas Kristof's piece at the NYTimes lightly chides the press, for being too pure of heart to deal with the massive evil that is Trump. In truth, Trump is just an expression of the press's evil nature. The press has suppressed and ignored a large section of the population. This has done nothing to change minds, and only caused grievances to fester, until a populist candidate came along. Had the press been less biased, less focused on attacking anybody of the wrong ideology, this anger would not have existed for Trump to tap into.

Note: When I was a kid, my father was a journalist. One day, I opened our front door to find two people in burgundy robes on our door step, members of the cult of Bagwan Shree Rajneesh. They weren't there to convert us, but instead, had accepted my dad's invitation to dinner (he was writing articles about the Rajneeshees). "But these people are crazy cultists!!", I exclaimed to my father. He then gave me a lecture on unfair biases, and how just because I believed they were wrong, it didn't mean they were unreasonable people we couldn't have dinner with.


Dan said...

What relevance does any of this have to advanced persistent cybersecurity?

Robert Graham said...

What the public perceives about "hacking" is driven by the media. What's wrong with media portrayal of hackers starts with discussions about what's wrong with the media. I grew up with journalism, and hence can see the press in ways others in our community can't.

Unknown said...

Thanks for another excellent read, Rob. To have both an informed and informative opinion appears to be a rarity these days. Pairing that with your attempts at true objectivity it is not difficult to see why the best journalism isn't coming from journalists.

Unfortunately, many people are responding to "feels" rather than reason, thus the argumentum ad passiones fallacy seems more prevalent than ever.

Unknown said...

I agree with many of the underlying facts you offer, but I have to disagree that the two parties are equally guilty of unreasonable or irrational positions, and I also think the media is not always wrong when it does choose sides. In my opinion, one of these issues is race. Yet you seem to think the parties are equally wrong or unreasonable on this issue. I would appreciate an explanation of that. One thing that has always jumped out at me, for example, is the fact that the Republicans, since 1964 (Goldwater) and especially since 1968 and the Nixon "Southern Strategy," have become the party of race-baiting. By this I mean not necessarily racism, but (usually) appeals to whites based on racial issues. Today, these appeals are almost always coded, meaning that they refer nominally to other attributes of people in order to appear facially race-neutral, while actually targeting people on race. Take voter id and similar restrictions. Republicans say they want to protect the integrity of the voting system, but it could hardly be clearer that that goal is a pretext for reducing the availability of the franchise to likely Democratic votes, particularly minorities.

What do you think is unreasonable about the way Democrats deal with race?

Robert Graham said...

To James Cox:

There are always two sides to an issue. For example, Democrats in many states deliberately extended early voting to Sundays before elections, to tap into the high church attendance of blacks who vote almost exclusively for Democrats. That's an explicit racist policy. Yet, when Republicans want to stop early voting, they are the ones who are racist. Making laws designed to make it easier for your side to vote is no different than laws trying to make it harder for the other side to vote.

Unknown said...

I don't think you can really defend your point. Making it easier for eligible voters to vote (at least absent anything fraudulent) is a good thing and nowhere close to symmetrical to making it harder to vote.

pjbeardsley said...

I personally think PolitiFact does an adequate job of calling out Democrats. Trump's constant stream of "pants on fire" ratings are less a sign of PolitiFact's bias, and more a symptom of Trump's off-the-cuff speaking style. The details aren't important to him, and why should they be? He has nothing to gain by being guarded or choosing his words carefully.

When Hilary and Bernie misrepresent the truth, it's usually much more subtle-- a lie of omission, or cherry-picking statistics to support their position. What you see on PolitiFact will typically reflect this.

pjt said...

James A Cox: however, requiring voters to have ID is a very legitimate mechanism for enforcing integrity of the voting system. Advocating voting without IDs is advocating vote fraud. So the point is not about eligible voters but enabling ineligible ones.

(FWIW, I live in one of the socialist Nordic paradises advocated by Bernie Sanders, and the requirement for voter ID is nowadays absolute here. I must have photo ID to vote. This is a Big Brother society in the sense that you can do a reliable census by saying something to the effect of "SELECT COUNT(id) FROM population WHERE alive=TRUE;")

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