Super Tuesday Confirmation Bias Lesson, Or Why We Can Never Trust Media Analysis

Checking the Republican primary results as Super Tuesday neared an end, I got an unexpected demonstration of confirmation bias in the news media, so vivid that it could be used in an educational video.

On CNN, John King, Gloria Borgia and the gang were analyzing the razor-close contest in Ohio, widely regarded as a must-win for Rick Santorum, just as Mitt Romney seemed to be pulling ahead for good. Welcome news for Romney? Not so fast!

Gloria Borger, whose contempt for all things Republican is always writ large on her face and unmistakably expressed by her tones of disdain (Does she even attempt to appear objective? It doesn’t seem so, as her demeanor when discussing GOP politics always suggests to me that she thinks she is covering some kind of demeaning novelty event, like a four-poster bed race or a dwarf-bowling, that the audience knows as well as she does is a colossal waste of time), vigorously took the floor and emphasized that Romney was winning in the very communities where Democrats were strongest, and losing to Santorum where Republicans usually did well. This, she said, eyes rolling (“I can’t believe I’m here talking about Republicans when I could be home watching a repeat of ‘Big Bang Theory!'”) showed that Romney would be in likely trouble if he were the nominee in November, since his strength would be wasted in Democratic strongholds and he wouldn’t be getting the support of the blue-collar types that a Republican presidential hopeful couldn’t win Ohio without. “To illustrate Gloria’s point,” King interjected, and then produced a computer graphic showing Romney’s fatally flawed vote patterns. Everyone nodded sagely. Mitt’s victory in Ohio showed that he was a loser.

Meanwhile, over at Fox, they were discussing the exact same phenomenon. Local politics maven Michael Barone weighed in, and said that this could bode well for Romney in November. John McCain, though losing Ohio in 2008, still “cleaned up” in the blue color districts, noted Barone, so even though Santorum was beating Romney there tonight, they could be still counted upon to go Mitt’s way in 2012 when Obama was the opposition. Meanwhile, the well-educated, wealthier areas that gave Barack Obama the critical swing state’s electoral votes that year have in the past swung Republican, and Mitt’s showing with that group tonight just might indicate that he could seriously cut into Obama’s strength, taking the state red. And Michale Barone knows his stuff, the Fox-ites gushed. Continue reading

Herman Cain, the News Media’s New Sarah Palin

Calling Herman Cain an Oreo and an Uncle Tom is bad, but comparing him to Sanjaya? Is there no limit to media cruelty?

At least when the media and pundits decided to suspend basic principles of fairness and decency to attack Sarah Palin for the unforgivable crime of being an outspoken conservative woman (even before she had a chance to show she deserved to be attacked for other reasons), she had been nominated for Vice President. Business executive Herman Cain, a similarly reviled aberration from the expected norm as a black Republican, is now getting equally unconscionable journalistic treatment just for getting decent poll numbers.

I will move past the race-based attacks from columnists and the MSNBC hit squad that have explicitly referred to him as an Oreo, an Uncle Tom, a black man who “knows his place,”  “the GOP’s token,” and “the Sanjaya of the Republican field,” as well as the many demeaning references to him as a “joke candidate,” and go right to this weekend, when the Palin standard was on bright display.

Here is part of the interview of Cain on “Face the Nation,” after host Bob Scheiffer showed Cain’s bizarre web ad, which ends with his campaign manager taking a puff on a cigarette:

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Comment of the Day: “Follow Up and Clarification On The Hiroshima Apology Cable: I Was Wrong, I Apologize…and More”

Rick Jones, whose blog is a constant source of information, provocation and thoughtfulness, generously contributes his analysis to the botched Hiroshima apology story in this Comment of the Day.  To summarize: here and elsewhere, a Wikileaks-released diplomatic cable from 2009  prompted a stampede of mostly conservative news sources to report that President Obama had suggested the possibility of apologizing for the atom bombing of Hiroshima in World War II.  I encountered the story, tracked it in several sources that have proven reliable in the past, and commented on it, critically. About 24 hours later, a friend with impeccable diplomatic credentials and inside information properly chastised me for taking the bait, and offered conclusive evidence that the cable had been misinterpreted. You might want to read my post of last night apologizing to readers and the President that also raises the issues that Rick addresses in his Comment of the Day. I have a follow-up comment at the end:

“While I admire your acceptance of responsibility for what appears to have been a misinterpretation, your commentary raises other issues. Continue reading

Double Standard Ethics: What the “Occupy Wall Street” Demonstrations Have Revealed So Far

1. When well-behaved middle-class Americans held rallies protesting specific U.S. policies, notably excessive spending, a CNN  reporter challenged them on camera and accused the effort of being a creation of Fox News. When incoherently chanting anarchists, radicals and unemployed youths hold rallies advocating nothing constructive whatsoever, reporters are invariably respectful.

2. Thanks to the efforts of snickering CNN and MSNBC hosts, the emerging Tea Party was immediately referred to using a crude term for a gay sexual act. No such denigrating term has been employed to describe “Occupy Wall Street.” Continue reading

The Obama Speech Flap: Case Study in Liberal Media Bias Attempted and Abandoned

This time even the Washington Post couldn't hide it.

Why does the mainstream media continue to do this? Why does it try to make fair analysis look like right wing bias by refusing to admit the obvious?

I am genuinely perplexed.

I wrote about the President’s petty and inept effort to upstage the GOP presidential debates earlier than most. concluding that 1) it was intentional, 2) it showed, as usual, awful leadership instincts; 3) it would make the likelihood of Republican cooperation in essential policy initiatives worse, not better, and finally, 4) that the White House, once it was blocked by Speaker Boehner, was lying when it claimed that the conflict was accidental.

This was not some calculated ideological spin; I don’t do that.  I may be full of baloney sometimes, but I don’t do that. My analysis was based on conventional and scholarly knowledge of what constitutes leadership, fairness, and professionalism. But the President’s media cheering section, which has mastered the art of making objective criticism seem like “conservative attacks”, once again attempted to misrepresent the story to suit the kind of political agenda objective journalists are ethically bound to avoid.

Here’s the Washington Post in its early edition yesterday: Continue reading

Ethics Quote of the Week: Greta Van Susteren

Welcome to the Wisconsin Supreme Court!

“Are any of the newspaper asking for them to step down? People have very serious disputes and their whole lives depend on decisions on the Supreme Court, and this isn’t fair to the people. Are newspaper editors saying they got to go?”

—-Fox News Host Greta Van Susteren, asking Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel reporter Jason Stein why the Wisconsin news media has not demanded  the removal of Justice David Prosser and  Justice Ann Walsh Bradley or both, since by all accounts they turned ideological differences into a physical altercation in chambers. The reporter ducked the question, and blamed it all on Gov. Scott Walker, thus taking “missing the entire point” to art form status.

Van Susteren is not only right, but obviously right. Continue reading

Incompetent Elected Official of the Month: Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.)

Worse than Joe "You Lie!" Wilson; worse than Allan "The Republicans want you to die!" Grayson. Will anyone say so?

Many Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have specifically stated in the past that they have no interest in budget-balancing issues, and that their primary and over-riding objective is to keep government money flowing to their neediest constituents. That’s a narrow and irresponsible position, but defensible if your view of the duty of elected representatives is that they are only advocates for the voters who elect them, and not bound by any obligation to national welfare  as a whole. Even if one accepts this approach (shared by many in the Tea Party), it does not excuse executing that advocacy by stirring up race hatred with diatribes attributing monstrous and unjustified motivations to political adversaries.

In other words, it doesn’t excuse slanderous comments like these about the Tea Party and its adherents, issuing like flaming vomit from the uncivil mouth of Rep. Andre Carson:

“This is the effort that we are seeing of Jim Crow. Some of these folks in Congress right now would love to see us as second class citizens. Some of them in Congress right now with this Tea Party movement would love to see you and me… hanging on a tree. Some of them right now in Congress right now are comfortable with where we were fifty or sixty years ago. But it’s a new day with a black president and a Congressional Black Caucus.”

Continue reading

Unethical Web Headline of the Month: The Huffington Post

This photo has almost nothing to do with the subject of this story.

It wasn’t only HuffPo, to be fair. Every single news website that covered the story used the same misleading, sensational idea in its headline, but The Huffington Post’s version was the worst:

Anthony Stewart, 15-Year-Old From Syracuse, N.Y., Jailed For 7-Cent Robbery

Awww..poor Anthony! And what a mean judge! What did the mischievous tyke do, steal the change from the little bowl by the cash register at the Subway sandwich shop? Knock over a lemonade stand? No, actually, he did this: (From the CBS New website):

“Anthony Stewart was found guilty of first-degree robbery earlier this month for beating and kicking a 73-year-old man and robbing him of seven cents. Prosecutors say the victim was on his way to a store last December when the two teenagers ran up from behind, knocked him into a snow bank, then kicked and punched him. The two teens had handguns, which Stewart later admitted were BB guns, prosecutors said.”

Even though both the victim and Stewart’s partner in crime identified him, Anthony Stewart, unlike his accomplice, refused to plead guilty and insisted on a jury trial. He lost his gamble, and the judge, as judges are wont to do, penalized him for not admitting his guilt. The victim’s other attacker had been sentenced as a youthful offender, meaning the he will have his record sealed and won’t be labeled a felon, though he still will spend up to four years in a state juvenile facility. Stewart, however, didn’t get the youthful offender break, and will come out of prison two to six  years from now with a felony conviction on his permanent record.

“If you admitted like a man, then I would have sentenced you exactly as I did Mr. Ninham,” the judge told Stewart. “But you still denied committing a crime, despite a mountain of evidence.”

Let’s get this straight: the seven cents had nothing to do with the sentence, other than the fact that it changed the crime from a criminal assault to a robbery. I don’t know why these two dummies bothered to steal seven lousy cents, when they found that this was all the old man was carrying. Still, it established that they would have stolen whatever he had, whether it was 7 cents or  $7,000 dollars. Two teenagers, armed with weapons, beat a man and robbed him. It was a brutal attack, and the fact that they only got 7 cents out of it is moral luck and cosmic irony, but it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, make the criminals any more sympathetic.

So why did the Huffington Post (and CBS, and the New York Daily News, and Yahoo, and Newser, and Fox…) use a headline that made it sound like the American Justice system was doing its Kafka imitation, and a photo of the young African-American teen calculated to tug on our heartstrings and make Al Sharpton go bananas?

Because they lie, that’s why. Because they don’t care that lots of people just read their dishonest headlines and never finish the story, and then tell their family and friends about the insane judge who is ruining a boy’s life because he took 7 cents. Because all they care about is web traffic, and the journalistic ideals of factual and objective reporting are so dead, they wouldn’t even make it as zombies.

Even with the facts of the attack revealed (in the HuffPo article, seven paragraphs from the lead), an astounding number of commenters on the various sites took their cues from the headlines, and expressed horror and outrage. It was a white judge—racism must have been behind the sentence! The boy just made a mistake, and what harm did he do—after all, he only took 7 cents! Why should Anthony be penalized for making the system prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?

Fools all…but fools nourished by unscrupulous media like the Huffington Post. Anthony deserves every second of his sentence, and the felony record too. He participated in a violent and armed attack on an elderly man, and if he wanted mercy from the judge, he should have admitted his guilt. That’s the system.

Anthony’s asinine lawyer, who either gave him awful advice or failed miserably by not talking him out of pleading not guilty, fatuously told the judge,  “For 7 cents, now you’re making someone a felon for the rest of his life.”

No, he made himself a felon for the rest of his life, and it wasn’t “for seven cents.”

But don’t worry!  Anthony will be OK. I’m sure the Huffington Post will have a job for him.

“Professionalism?” What’s THAT? Julie Chen, CBS and the Descent of Broadcast Journalism

Walter could keep it together. Not Julie Chen.

The Casey Anthony verdict is doing some good: it is exposing the awful deficit in objectivity and professionalism in the broadcast media.

The latest example: while CBS’ “The View” rip-off, “The Talk,” was underway,  viewers saw co-host Julie Chen break down as she tried to read the news that Casey  Anthony had been found not guilty of killing her daughter Caylee. Chen attempted to read the verdict, but was overcome with emotion  and was unable to continue, asking her co-hosts,  “Help me out here.”

In 1937, radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison was correctly criticized for being unable to keep his composure and report the flaming destruction of the zeppelin The Hindenburg without weeping and becoming unintelligible. In 2011, a woman described in her official bio as a “news anchor; reporter; and journalist” couldn’t compose herself to read the news of a not guilty verdict. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “The Washington Post Flunks Integrity, Conflicts, and Trustworthiness”

I do want to hold the line on featuring Comments of the Day that I think exemplify awful ethical reasoning, as opposed to those that are provocative and enlightening, to a minimum. This one, however, is too rich to ignore. It is the defense of an apparent journalist for the ethics-busting behavior of the Washington Post in the recent Jose Antonio Vargas incident using a dizzying array of alibis and rationalizations, including “they’re better than most,” “people don’t care,” “you have to cheat to stay in business,” “they are better than the alternative,” and others. It also resorts to the time-honored “who are you to judge?” and “you couldn’t do a better job.”

If this is typical of how journalists view their profession’s ethical obligations—and I think it is—the comment explains a lot. You can read my lin-by-line response after the original post. Here is the Comment of the Day, by okonheim: Continue reading