29 November 2019

Clown World Or Real World? How To Tell The Difference?

Among conservatives and right-leaning media types, one of the most disheartening media shifts in recent memory has been the apparent "betrayal" of iconic news aggregator Matt Drudge, whose headlines have lately trended towards the "anti-Trump" view of the world.

The curiously, quaintly, and yet effectively retro-themed "Drudge Report" has long been considered a primary source for conservative-leaning news, as well as "real" news unfettered by horrendous liberal bias. Many on the right feel that Drudge has abandoned that stance in favor of a more leftist/progressive tilt towards the news.
No right-tilting media outlet wields more influence than the Drudge Report, the widely read news-aggregation site launched in 1996. But those who follow the site closely say a sudden anti-Trump pivot is unmistakeable.

“Lately he has been absolutely terrible toward President Trump,” said conservative podcaster Josh Bernstein in a Nov. 8 show, dubbing the site “the Sludge Report.”

Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft pleaded, “Dear Matt Drudge — Please come home,” while Fox’s Jesse Watters took notice of a series of anti-Trump headlines, saying, “it just seems like the website has recently played up Trump gaffes and downplayed his successes.”

And they’re not wrong, according to B.J. Rudell, associate director of the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, who pinpoints the U-turn to the first week of August.
Conservatives Have Bias, Too

There is an irony to the angst that deserves closer attention. Whether Matt Drudge has shifted his media outlook or not, the criticisms from conservatives are every bit as biased and tilted to one side as the liberal media outlets many of them decry. One merely has to look at the observations made--Josh Bernstein's view that Drudge has been "absolutely terrible toward President Trump", or Jesse Watters' gripe that Drudge has "played up Trump gaffes and downplayed his successes."

And even in defending Matt Drudge, media watcher Howie Kurtz contended that the media was itself largely biased against Donald Trump:
“Look, I have covered Matt Drudge since he was an unknown blogger, and at this point in his career, he’s primary interested in clicks and riding the media wave, and the media wave you may have noticed, Jesse, has been largely anti-Trump, really for a long time,” Mr. Kurtz said on the Nov. 9 show.
Readers of this blog will note that this is not a new criticism from me, as I have devoted several blog posts to the decline of objective journalism and the rise of "infotainment" within the legacy media

Equally lacking in irony is the presentation of Drudge alternatives such as the visually similar Gab Trends and the often irreverent WhatFinger news portals. The one attribute both sides appear to show is a clear Trump-tilting, right-leaning bias in headlines.

We should not be surprised that various news aggregators display a distinct bias. Google News frequently selects as its headlines news articles that are decidedly biased--although we must in fairness note that even the legacy media concedes a liberal bias within the legacy media, and so arguably Google's apparent bias reflects the bias of their source materials. Whether by algorithm or manual curation, news aggregation sites are going to reflect the biases and preferences of the people managing the aggregation process.

Even the "RealClear" content aggregation sites maintained by the RealClear Media Group, while making part of their mission focus the presentation of all sides of an issue, rarely stray from the established legacy media paths (Tom Bevan, if you're reading, feel free to link my blog into the RealClearPolitics portal any time!). If the legacy media has a bias to the right or the left then aggregation of legacy media news articles will similarly have a bias to the right or the left. It is probably unrealistic to expect otherwise.

Is Anyone 'Objective'?

How then, can the average reader ascertain what is "objective news" and what is "infotainment"? Blanket presumptions are inadequate and unhelpful--for every questionable legacy media article there are alternative media sites that also get facts wrong, or get ahead of a story--case in point: ZeroHedge reported that Ukraine has indicted notorious oligarch Nikolai (Mykola) Zlochevsky, and later modified the reporting to indicate that Zlochevsky was merely the subject of an additional accusation, which might be more analogous to a criminal referral than a formal indictment. Gateway Pundit picked up on the report and ran with the story, although the headline and the reported facts are not entirely in alignment.

To make things even worse the self-appointed "fact checkers" make pious declarations of the veracity of various news items, yet often without careful scrutiny of their own analysis.  Politifact examined various Facebook postings predicated on the ZeroHedge/Gateway Pundit reporting and rated them "False".
The account linked to a story published on Interfax-Ukraine, a news agency that’s part of the Russian outlet Interfax. The story’s headline says, "MPs demand Zelensky, Trump investigate suspicion of U.S.-Ukraine corruption involving $7.4 bln."

However, the story doesn’t describe an indictment. Rather, it says Ukrainian members of parliament held a press conference at Interfax-Ukraine to demand Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky and Trump investigate what they called suspected money laundering involving Burisma founder Minister Mykola Zlochevsky and former President Viktor Yanukovych.

According to the story, one of the members of parliament, Andriy Derkach, said that the money transferred to "representatives of the Burisma Group, including Hunter Biden," amounted to $16.5 million.
Politifact concluded their analysis by questioning the credibility of Andriy Derkach
Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who researches kleptocracy in Russia, told NBC that the lawmakers pushing new allegations at the press conference — Oleksandr Dubinsky and Andriy Derkach — are "professional disinformers."

"This is generally known in Ukraine," he said, "this is not outstanding news. Anybody who’s anybody knows about these two. They are not credible."
However, Politifact's inclusion of Anders Aslund's comments is itself questionable because Burisma appears on the Atlantic Council's "Honor Roll" of major contributors. Politifact does not mention this fact, even though it could potentially impact Aslund's comments. Politifact also does not offer up any data in support of Aslund's contention that Dubinsky and Derkach are "professional disinformers" (we will set aside for the moment the irony of accusing professional politicians of also being professional disinfomers). While a contribution is not by itself sufficient to discredit Aslund as being unreliable, that tie to Burisma does make uncritical reliance on Aslund's comments problematic.

Thus, while the Burisma story as originally reported by ZeroHedge and picked up elsewhere does appear to have been overstated--no formal indictment was announced--the salient facts of the reporting--that Zlochesvky was accused of additional corruption, and that Hunter Biden's company was accused but not indicted of receiving $16.5 million in laundered money--can be credibly sourced to Dubinsky and Derkach.  Is the lack of formal indictment sufficient, within the Politifact spectrum of veracity, to declare the story "False"? 

For myself, I would gauge the reporting to be somewhere between "Half True" and "Mostly True" on Politifact's "Truth-O-Meter" scale. At a minimum it must be acknowledged that both Zlochevsky and Burisma are notoriously corrupt--that much was the consensus of Adam Schiff's impeachment witnesses over the past several weeks. Also at a minimum one has to acknowledge there is ample room for debate over Politifact's assessment accuracy in this story.

Yet such deconstruction of Politifact does little to answer the foundational question here: how to tell between "objective news" and "infotainment"? How do we separate Clown World from the Real World?

What Are The Facts?

In my day job as a Voice and Data Network Engineer, we emphasize hard data when performing analysis. In networking terms we look at the bits and bytes flowing through the network connections, we examine what systems report in their error logs, we perform various tests, gather that data, and use that to reach conclusions. The mantra of any good engineer is a quote by Robert Heinlein:

In theory, we are ruthlessly logical and data-driven in this regard. In reality, we are as human as anyone else and are as vulnerable to bias and illogic as anyone else. Yet an emphasis on facts, on empirical data, on that which has been documented and proven, is, in engineering and in journalism, the best vehicle for assessing what is real, for determining what qualifies as "truth".

It is facile and glib to say "look at the facts". If anything, that is a recurring mantra used by both sides of any debate, even though the exhortation to "look at the facts" more properly should be phrased "look at the facts I am presenting and ignore other facts." 

When any commentator stresses the facts, it is imprudent to presume they are presenting all the facts. When I write about a topic I do not present all the facts, nor do I operate under any illusion of such. I present the facts which support my thesis for that post. On occasion I update a post to reflect a correction or inclusion of relevant facts that come to my attention afterwards. At no point do I pretend to be so all knowing as to have possession of all the facts. Indeed, the moral imperative of free speech can be derived simply from this reality, that none of us possess all the facts of an issue, and we need a free exchange of ideas among people to ensure we get the benefit of the greatest amount of factual information possible. Since no one has all the facts we owe it to ourselves to share all the facts we have, so that we may all have as many facts as possible.

Clown World Believes It Has All The Facts. Real World Knows Better

Ironically, it is this uncertainty about the facts which provides the answer to the foundational question here. 

In the "Real World", both reporters and commentators are aware of their limitations with regards to facts. They are conscious of the inevitability of their own bias, and of the unlikelihood that they will ever be in full possession of all the facts on anything. I like to think of this blog as being firmly rooted in the Real World--although I freely admit that I can and do on occasion get the facts wrong.

In Clown World, moral certitude and an impious and arrogant rectitude pervades reporters and commentators alike. In Clown World, we see headlines such as this excrescence from Wall Street journalist Peggy Noonan, "Trump's Defenders Have No Defense." Setting aside the hyperbole, her own headline did not even reconcile with the much of her own writing, in which she acknowledged many shortcomings of Adam Schiff's impeachment witnesses:
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was not a persuasive witness and did not move the story forward, because in spite of the obvious patriotism reflected in his record he was annoying—smug and full of himself.
How "not moving the story forward" equates to making the case for impeachment is a leap of logic Ms. Noonan did not explain.
 The committee has paid entirely too much attention to the witnesses’ emotions. “How did that make you feel?” “Without upsetting you too much, I’d like to show you the excerpts from the call . . .”
If the committee was focused on feelings and not facts, how could the committee be making a case, which presumably is predicated on facts, not feelings?
On Wednesday Gordan Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, was both weirdly jolly and enormously effective in doing Mr. Trump damage. He followed the president’s orders; there was a quid pro quo; “everyone was in the loop, it was no secret“; Rudy Giuliani was the point man, with whom Mr. Sondland worked “at the express direction of the president.”

It was his third try at truthful sworn testimony and it was completely believable. It was kind of the ballgame. He seemed like a guy with nothing to lose, or maybe a guy who’d already lost much.
"Third try at truthful sworn testimony"? If it takes a witness three attempts at testimony to tell the truth, on what basis may we presume that testimony to be "believable".

Only in Clown World would these sort of observations amount to a case being unequivocally made. In the Real World we would look at the defects of these witnesses and acknowledge the diminution of credibility that logically must follow.

More to the point, statements such as "he was annoying" and "he seemed like a guy with nothing to lose" are not objective facts but subjective assessments. They are opinions. Weighed against the Heinlein standard of "what are the facts?" these statements fall far short of making a case for anything except the author's own faith in her own judgment.

In rebuttal to Peggy Noonan, President Trump's defenders do have a defense, and that defense is that the case presented by Adam Schiff is charitably described as a "hot mess." It is full of conflicts and contradictions, and, worst of all, such empirical data as we have indicates that independent voters were not persuaded by it. That is the Real World--when key voting blocks are not persuaded of a position, the case for that position has by definition not been made.

Be Skeptical

Whatever story you read, whatever bit of analysis you absorb, always remember that it is not the complete story. No story is the whole story. No analysis presents the whole truth. ZeroHedge is not the whole story, Gateway Pundit is not the whole story, the New York Times is not the whole story, A Voice Of Liberty is not the whole story. 

At best any one source is but one piece of a story, one sliver of the larger truth behind a story. At worst a source is a misdirection, a troll for clicks, ratings, and revenue, without regard to facts or substance. In between are headlines that fail to do justice to the stories they present.

Perhaps Matt Drudge has decided to shift his bias in favor of greater clicks and revenue, and this has led him to abandon his previously seeming "pro-Trump" headlines. Perhaps he has a different agenda in mind. Short of getting Matt Drudge to disclose his thinking on his headline-writing ways there is little to be done on that point but speculate.

Yet what was never a matter of speculation was the reality of Matt Drudge's bias. As with both the legacy and alternative media, as with every news commentator on Twitter, on Gab, and across social media, Drudge is biased. The news aggregators that many are leaving Drudge to patronize are similarly biased.

Recognize bias for what it is, and recognize its inevitability.  Accept that every reporter has a point of view, every commentator has a particular background. Assess their work in part by how well they treat their own bias and background.

As I said after the publication of the Mueller Report, the best posture for the well-informed citizen is skepticism.
What you, the audience, must therefore do is abandon trust. Do not accept a narrative merely because it appears on a favored outlet. Do not presume even my interpretation of events is sound, or my recitation of facts is correct. Follow the links within my posting and read my source materials for yourself. Take the time to do your own research. Form your own conclusions--and challenge interpretation with which you disagree.

Do not trust. Verify instead.
The one clear takeaway of the recent news cycles is the necessity of that imperative.

Do not trust the media. Verify instead. 

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