Fake News

Since President Trump entered the political arena we’ve heard constant accusations about “fake news” and biased media. Are such accusations accurate? Sure. At least some of the time. But not always. Just because the media write or report things about which you disagree doesn’t make that news “fake”.

It is a given that media are biased because newspapers are written by humans, TV news is reported by humans, and news websites are managed by humans. Humans are biased. However, legitimate news outlets do everything possible to minimize that bias whereas some sources of information don’t even try. Unfortunately, it seems that a sizeable portion of my fellow citizens tend to pay attention to information reported by the most biased and unreliable sources.

The general assumption is that news outlets in America tend to be left leaning and unfair to more conservative points of view, and there are certainly a good many liberal news outlets. However, there appears to be an almost equal number of right leaning outlets, especially in recent years.

Also, Political Scientist David D’Alessio, a noted expert on media, published an important work analyzing media reporting of campaigns from 1948-2008. D’Alessio focused on 99 previous studies of presidential campaigns and how media reported on those campaigns. Guess what he found? No general media bias. In other words some sources such as FOX news predictably leaned right in reporting on presidential races and others like MSNBC leaned left.

But why? Is it because the media outlets are trying to cause people to accept liberal or conservative opinions or candidates? No. They report conservative and liberal ideas because that is precisely what their readers want. People who watch FOX are “conservative”, so FOX offers conservative reporting. People who watch MSNBC are “liberals” so they are fed what they want as well. Both FOX and MSNBC are corporations driven by profit and they maximize that profit by pandering to their viewers. And CNN, the oldest satellite news channel, is also motivated by its viewers’ political views because that network also demonstrably leans to the left. 

Interestingly, we tend to trust the print media more than broadcast outlets, but an exhaustive study of newspapers clearly demonstrated that if a newspaper has a larger number of conservative readers it will offer more conservative reporting and the opposite is true of papers with mostly liberal readers.

Does this mean these news sources are always unreliable? No, but it means we should consider the source’s reporting in light of its ideological leanings. Most if not all media outlets are biased, but even the most liberal and most conservative media may report stories truthfully. The problem is that our own biases lead us to ignore those outlets that tend to report in a way that contradicts our own biases, so we don’t always get both sides of stories.

This chart, taken from a report published last week by the Gallup/Knight Foundation, clearly demonstrates Americans’ biases and how those biases impact our reliance on trusted media outlets. It should be no surprise that Democrats and Republicans trust different news sources.

We get the news we want.

What is my point? As individuals we are biased, we tend to pay attention to news sources that support our biases, and those outlets favor our bias because that is what we want. And they do so because they are in the business of making money.

So what are America’s MOST and LEAST reliable sources of information? Oddly, I tend to trust The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) more than most other sources, but that trust depends on the topic. I think, for example that BBC does a pretty good job of covering American domestic news but it hasn’t been as objective on Brexit (Britain leaving the European Union). I also generally trust NPR although the writers and reporters there often let their agendas impact their reporting as well (again, they are human). And I believe the Wall Street Journal tends to be fairly objective.

And what source of information is the least trustworthy? As it turns out it may be President Trump himself. Last week he set his own weekly record by making 103 false claims. That means he made false claims at a rate of 15 per day. If you believe this is fake news I encourage you to read this report that provides each of the 103 statements then compares those statements to demonstrable facts.

The bottom line is that news outlets do sometimes report “fake news”, but President Trump, the loudest indicter of “fake news”, reports such news at a much more alarming rate and gets away with it. The Toronto Star found that during the first 821 days of his presidency he made 1,829 false claims, or about 3.5 such claims each day. Most of these are not outright lies but are instead exaggerated statistics, attempts to misdirect the public’s attention, or attempts to inflame the emotions of his core supporters.

The most problematic source of fake news is pretty obvious.

The solution? Pay attention!

A NOTE: I begin a new job next week and have no idea whether I’ll have much time to add to my blog. I certainly hope I will. Thanks so much for following along.



Pay Attention!

Misdirection: “A form of deception in which the attention of the audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another.”

On December 16, 1998 President Bill Clinton ordered airstrikes on Iraq because, he argued, Saddam Hussein was building “weapons of mass destruction”. The bombings were opposed by a good many of the members of Congress and by most of our European allies. The timing of the order for the new wave of bombings, called Operation Desert Fox, was interesting; the day before the bombings the House of Representatives had initiated impeachment charges against Clinton accusing him of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” over his lies related to Monica Lewinsky.

This was not Clinton’s first coincidental use of military. Three months earlier, on August 20, he ordered missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan three days after he was called to testify before a grand jury over his affair with Lewinsky and his subsequent televised confession.

It is certainly possible these military operations had been planned in advance, but it is also very likely they were timed to misdirect the public’s attention from the scandal caused by President Clinton’s hyperactive libido. In fact, his detractors sometimes referred to these military actions as Monica’s War because of their questionable timing.

Of course misdirection is nothing new. Politicians are often akin to those guys on city streets who invite you to guess which cup hides the marble while they swirl multiple empty cups before your increasingly confused eyes. Or maybe it is more like the cartoon boxer who swings one fist wildly in the air to get his opponent’s attention then knocks him cold with the other fist that was being ignored.

And political misdirection often takes other forms.

In 2013 citizens and media were intensely focused on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on same sex marriage. We were so focused on that case that we missed Congress passing and President Obama signing  H.R. 933 which included a section referred to as The Monsanto Protection Act limiting federal court jurisdiction over any cases dealing with genetically modified or engineered seeds. That means that even if we ultimately learn that consuming food produced from these seeds is harmful to our health we cannot file suit against Monsanto seeking medical coverage or other compensation. Congress and the President took advantage of the fact that our attention was focused elsewhere.

Of course our current President is the master of misdirection. Many folks argue that President Trump tweets and says outlandish things in public because he is just crass and incapable of self-control. While that may be true there is little doubt he also plays the game of misdirection, and he is good at it. Any time breaking news casts him in a negative light he begins tweeting outrageous claims or he goes wildly off script in a public speech.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s fabrications no longer surprise us. We now just ignore the exaggerated estimate of the number of people attending his swearing in ceremony, his claims to have talked with Mexico’s president and the leader of the Boy Scouts, his claim that he saved money on military aircraft when the cuts were actually planned under previous administrations, criticizing President Obama for moving our British embassy (a decision made by President Bush), his promise to release his taxes, his claim that Mexico would build a wall, his claim that more people watched his State of the Union address than ever, and all the other constant untruths. Add to that all the personal attacks on journalists, federal judges, his own appointees, and just about everyone other than himself and his own family and we just come to expect his almost daily unsupportable and preposterous comments.

I believe President Trump’s most outlandish tweets and utterances are intended to misdirect the public’s attention. He used misdirection when he abruptly announced an anti-transgender military policy, an announcement intended to make voters ignore his attacks on Jeff Sessions and other scandals of the day. He tweeted about millions of illegal voters on the same day the New York Times ran a story about his questionable business dealings both here and abroad.

His misdirection is almost methodical, and there is a reason for that. He really doesn’t want Americans to think about or understand Robert Mueller’s investigation into the relationship between his staff/family and Russia. He really doesn’t want us wondering what he is hiding in his tax returns. He doesn’t want us thinking about the consequences of the tax reform package or his failure to reform Obamacare. He hopes we will miss the fact that since he became president Democrats are winning elections that they should lose. He wants voters to forget his claim to “drain the swamp”. He doesn’t want us wondering about his use of the presidency to increase his personal wealth. And he really doesn’t want us wondering about his relationship with Vladimir Putin. In fact there is quite a bit he wants us to ignore.

And we now have an “adult film” star claiming to have had an affair with President Trump while he was married to his current wife, and she claims to have proof (I hope I’m NEVER forced to see such proof if it does exist!). Other women are coming forward (and have come forward previously) with the same claims. I’m pretty sure President Trump doesn’t want us thinking about those scandals and will do everything possible to misdirect our attention.

I’m also pretty certain President Trump doesn’t want us thinking about the federal lawsuit accusing him of taking illegal foreign gifts in violation of the Constitution’s “emoluments clause”.

This morning President Trump attacked giant online retailer Amazon (one of his favorite targets) and, as is often the case, his attacks were based on untruths. Don’t you wonder what motivated this morning’s tweet?

Can we expect the deployment of cruise missiles in the near future? Can we expect a new wave of White House firings? What outrageous tweets should we expect? How will he misdirect the public’s collective attention?

We need to avoid watching the swirling cups. We need to ignore the fist spinning in the air.

We need to pay attention.