Friday, May 19, 2017

Strange epistemic times

Stipulated that President Trump can be bombastic, crass, ill-spoken and ill-mannered. Also stipulated that he is not a traditional or establishment conservative, he is a recent interloper into Republican politics. He is a phenomenon of some sort but of what sort we do not yet know.

That is no explanation for the sustained din of negative news reporting that seems to have been going on since his inauguration. I understand that Democrats are shattered that they are a shell of their former selves and thunderstruck that the election did not turn out as they expected. I also understand that establishment Republicans especially, but Burkean conservatives as well, are appalled by their candidate.

But he won the election fair and square.

If it were only Representative Maxine Waters calling for his impeachment even before his inauguration, that would be one thing. But that's not the case. During the interim between the election and the electoral college there were constant entreaties and speculation as to how the electors could overturn the election results. Then there was the constant discussion about how Trump could be prospectively disqualified. This growing cacophony since inauguration of calls for impeachment, special investigations, special prosecutors, serial false claims, baseless allegations, etc. seems extraordinary.

The closest I can recall anything like this was Ronald Reagan and even that was not the same. The press attitude was the same in the sense that both Trump and Reagan are/were cast as clueless, not too bright, and of dubious competence but I don't recall this relentless press to overturn the results of the election. It almost feels like an attempted institutional coup to give the establishment (the establishment of both parties, civil servants, universities, the media) the results they wanted over what the electorate actually chose.

The opposition claims seem to have gone from inane to insane.

Whenever there is such a disconnect between what you think you see and what the mainstream narrative is saying, you have to question whether the problem resides with yourself. And as I said at the beginning, there is plenty of reason to find Trump distasteful. But so far all I am seeing is disappointment, bias and smoke. I am not seeing anything out-of-the ordinary about Trump compared to his predecessors. And indeed, one of the striking things has been the outrage by the mainstream media when Trump either endorses or implements a policy that was happily accepted by the MSM under the previous administration.

I think I am assessing this correctly but you can't help but have doubts about your own perceptions.

And then along comes News Coverage of Donald Trump’s First 100 Days by Thomas E. Patterson. This is from Harvard's Kennedy School, hardly a hotbed of John Birchers or Breitbart devotees.

It turns out that indeed, on an objective measured basis, the mainstream media has gone crazy. They are devoting more of their news time to the president than under earlier administrations and their coverage is overwhelmingly more negative in contrast to earlier presidents. It's not an issue of misperceiving. They really are going crazy.

Donald Trump has received 80% negative coverage compared to 41% for Barack Obama, 57% for George W. Bush and 60% negative for Bill Clinton. All the traditional MSM bugbears of the right are in on the game with negative coverage from CNN (97% negative), NBC (97%), CBS (91%), New York Times (87%), and the Washington Post (83%). I read the New York Times and Washington Post and thought they were pretty unhinged. Thank goodness I don't watch CNN, NBC and CBS - it must be nauseously disorienting if they are even worse than NYT and WaPo.

Not only are they covering him more negatively but they are devoting more time to doing so.
President Trump dominated media coverage in the outlets and programs analyzed, with Trump being the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents.
It is good to know that it wasn't me going crazy and misreading the behavior of the press.

Patterson concludes:
Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days was negative even by the standards of today’s hyper-critical press. Studies of earlier presidents found nothing comparable to the level of unfavorable coverage afforded Trump. Should it continue, it would exceed even that received by Bill Clinton. There was not a single quarter during any year of Clinton’s presidency where his positive coverage exceeded his negative coverage, a dubious record no president before or since has matched. Trump can’t top that string of bad news but he could take it to a new level. During his first 100 days, Clinton’s coverage was 3-to-2 negative over positive. Trump’s first 100 days were 4-to-1 negative over positive.

[snip]

Nevertheless, the sheer level of negative coverage gives weight to Trump’s contention, one shared by his core constituency, that the media are hell bent on destroying his presidency. As he tweeted a month after taking office, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

[snip]

At the same time, the news media need to give Trump credit when his actions warrant it. The public’s low level of confidence in the press is the result of several factors, one of which is a belief that journalists are biased. That perception weakens the press’s watchdog role. One of the more remarkable features of news coverage of Trump’s first 100 days is that it has changed few minds about the president, for better or worse. The nation’s watchdog has lost much of its bite and won’t regain it until the public perceives it as an impartial broker, applying the same reporting standards to both parties.
What to do? I liked this recommendation:
The press should also start doing what it hasn’t done well for a long time—focus on policy effects. Journalists’ focus on the Washington power game—who’s up and who’s down, who’s getting the better of whom—can be a fascinating story but at the end of the day, it’s food for political junkies. It’s remote enough from the lives of most Americans to convince them that the political system doesn’t speak for them, or to them.

A broadening of the scope of political coverage would require journalists to spend less time peering at the White House. Our analysis of news coverage of Trump’s first 100 days found that, except for his court-challenged immigration orders, the press paid only minimal attention to Trump’s executive orders. He issued a large number of them, covering everything from financial regulation to climate change. Collectively, these orders, immigration aside, accounted for less than 1 percent of Trump’s coverage, and rarely did a news report track an executive order into the agencies to see how it was being handled.

Journalists would also do well to spend less time in Washington and more time in places where policy intersects with people’s lives. If they had done so during the presidential campaign, they would not have missed the story that keyed Trump’s victory—the fading of the American Dream for millions of ordinary people. Nor do all such narratives have to be a tale of woe. America at the moment is a divided society in some respects, but it’s not a broken society and the divisions in Washington are deeper than those beyond the Beltway.
The surprises don't stop. In Vox, of all places, that firmly left-left-of-center website that seeks to explain, there is this astonishing confirmation that opponents of the president are getting too desperate; Democrats are falling for fake news about Russia by Zack Beauchamp. Vox is just about the last place I would look for confirmation of some pattern I might think I see in politics.

Now granted, Beauchamp is only acknowledging that the Russia scare stories are fake news because he is concerned that it will damage Democrats, but still. The Truth is Out There. Acknowledgement is acknowledgement.
What you’ve got are prominent media figures, political operatives, scholars, and even US senators being taken in by this stuff — in addition to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of ordinary people consuming it on Twitter and Facebook. These people, too, are letting their biases trump interest in factual accuracy.

This is the key danger: that this sort of thing becomes routine, repeated over and over again in left-leaning media outlets, to the point where accepting the Russiasphere’s fact-free claims becomes a core and important part of what Democrats believe.

“Normal people aren’t reading extensively about what Louise Mensch claims someone told her about Russia,” Nyhan says. “The question now is whether Democrats and their allies in the media — and other affiliated elites — will promote these conspiracy theories more aggressively.”
Strange epistemic times.

UPDATE: Hanson has a good round up of the churn of fake news and hysteria. Regime Change by Any Other Name? by Victor Davis Hanson

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