Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Narrative bias at NPR

One of the points we keep coming back to on this blog is that, while liberal ideological bias has long been held up as a bogeyman by critics of the mainstream media, it is both trivial and rare, at least in the way it is generally presented. You certainly have ideological and particularly partisan bias around the fringes, especially in conservative outlets such as Fox News, and you can find individual issues where the MSM displays strong biases. Entitlement reform, education reform, and gun control are all prominent examples, though it should be noted that only the last is particularly liberal.

That's not to say that biases don't exist and are not a problem – – given recent events, I list them as threats to the republic – – but the forms those biases take have little to do with left/right and everything to do with laziness, cultivating sources, driving traffic, intellectual conformity, and one that gets so little attention that there's not even a widely accepted name for it, narrative bias, selecting subjects and tweaking details to create a "good story" according to certain unstated but fairly standard criteria.

This piece by Carrie Johnson is a depressingly good example.

Robert Mueller May Not Be The Savior The Anti-Trump Internet Is Hoping For

In Procrustean fashion, it forces the facts to justify two decrepit clichés. The first is the Internet angle. For reasons too complex to delve into here, reporters and editors continue after about a quarter century to believe that framing something as an online phenomenon somehow gives it modern sheen.

In this context, you could pretty much substitute "Internet" with "carbon-based life forms." Since most journalists are active on twitter, quoting a few tweets is not evidence of an "online community." What's worse, of the four tweets she cites, one is from a cable news personality, one is from the formerly print-based publication the onion, and the third is from a writer for the still in print magazine the New Yorker.

The second and arguably even more threadbare cliché is the "not so fast" reversal which starts out by depicting a piece of supposed conventional wisdom then claiming to undercut it. In order to fit the narrative to this genre, Johnson has to cut lots of corners. For starters, while Trump opponents are certainly encouraged by the investigation and annoyed by the unavoidably slow pace of the process, it is not clear how many are "counting on" him to be their "savior." Trump resigning as part of a plea bargain would certainly be seen as a happy outcome by most administration critics (and a substantial number of Republicans who see this as the exit strategy least likely to devastate the GOP) but it is not the only happy outcome and perhaps not even the most hoped-for. Trump's critics (particularly his non-Republican critics) are arguably more focused on the Democrats retaking the house and starting impeachment hearings, preferably with the Senate also changing hands. There is also a lot of talk about the 25th amendment. Johnson has to underplay these aspects in order to set up the premise of the narrative.

Then there is the conclusion. This requires downplaying the potential amount of damage this investigation can do. In this case, that means relying on perhaps the most unreliable source imaginable.
Three months into the job, however, it's not clear what, if anything, investigators may uncover about the president, who has repeatedly denied any improper contacts with people in Russia and has called the special counsel probe "a witch hunt."

"They're investigating something that never happened," Trump told reporters last week. "There was no collusion between us and Russia. In fact, the opposite. Russia spent a lot of money on fighting me."

Putting aside the fact that three months does not seem like very long at all given the scope and complexity of this investigation, framing it in terms of Donald Trump's denials is simply unjustifiable. For starters, people under investigation virtually always start by claiming "there's no there there." Even if we were dealing with a normal politician, these declarations of innocence wouldn't count for much, but Trump is no normal politician. Among high-ranking elected officials, he has a unique-in-living-memory record of dishonesty and fabrication both directly and through his surrogates. On top of that, the statement actually ends with a demonstrable lie about Russia trying to undermine his election. If anything, a denial this ridiculous should arouse disbelief in readers and, more to the point, in reporters.

Keeping with the narrative, Johnson further understates the danger to the administration.
Another complicating factor: Mueller is using grand juries in Alexandria, Va., and Washington, D.C., and grand jury information is rarely made public.

"It is going to be hard and frustrating to get this information out," said Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer at the Arent Fox firm who worked on the special counsel team investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity in the George W. Bush administration.

In his leak investigation, a lot of information eventually became public through the prosecution of former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Absent a decision to charge someone with a crime, investigations in Congress may be the best way for people to understand what happened and why in last year's election interference.

A couple of important points here, one of which is badly understated, the other omitted entirely. First, big investigations like this do tend to produce criminal charges, often of people not immediately involved with the primary case (just ask Jim Guy Tucker). When you start digging into any sufficiently complex scenario involving great money or power, you will generally find that someone broke some law. Second, and this very much affects the previous point, the legitimate scope of this investigation is huge. Of the quid pro quo being investigated, only the middle piece is reasonably well contained.

After Trump lost access to conventional funding due to his habit of screwing over business partners, he had to rely on disreputable sources. Much, perhaps most of the time, those sources had direct or indirect ties to Russia. This means that a thorough investigation will need to closely examine the financing of every project Trump was involved in for perhaps the past 10 years. It is highly likely that the grand juries will find something to charge someone with. And we haven't even gotten into the hacking of the election itself.

None of this means that Trump or a member of his inner circle will be indicted. It doesn't even necessarily mean that anyone will be indicted (though that second one seems a bit improbable). What it does mean is that, like the "anti-Trump Internet" premise, the facts have been stretched or truncated to fit the genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment