Media Bias, Dissected

There has been a lot of discussion about media bias and fake news. For the most part, I think the term “fake news” is getting overused, but its a real problem. Fake news is when an outlet simply makes up things and tries to pass them off as reporting and journalism. Its not a new problem—yellow journalism in the late 1800s looked like this, except on paper.

Beyond that, though, the internet has allowed news to decentralize. That has its benefits, but it also has encouraged “boutique” news which is written to capture a certain audience. This is not all bad—boutique newspapers have long been a staple in Europe. They allow more activist editorial points and more competing ideas. However, they can be caustic when people mistake them for a neutral source, poisoning discourse. One example of a boutique source is Vox. Now, I broadly like Ezra Klein’s media 2.0 news experiment, but I’ll be the first to say a health news diet is not founded on them. In fact, most of this post is about a particular piece Vox ran a week and a half  ago.

I’ve not chosen Vox to treat it as a punching bag. Rather, Vox’s streangths and weaknesses are very emblematic of the bigger problems in political journalism in the internet age. Vox has transparently taken a stance of aggressively fact-checking Trump and being uncharitable to his lack of clarity. The reason they give is that Trump is, knowingly or not, exploiting traditions of deferring to controversy and letting the reader decide. The problem is that Trump’s lies are so aggressive that less activist outlets often give the impression that there is some sort of uncertainty about whether or not Trump is wrong. Vox broke with tradition to combat this—its one of the reasons they are still in my media diet.

I’ve marked up the text of the piece below. Green indicates that the piece is giving a clear, reliable account of what happened in the ballpark of normal journalistic standards. Orange indicates an active editorial voice. This is not necessarily bad, as outlined above, but it means that the journalist is nudging you. Red indicates that I think the piece has crossed into full analysis or editorializing. Again, this would not be bad, except Vox contends that it offers news—a different product. I’ve footnoted some of my decisions, especially those where the reader might differ.

The first White House press conference of the Trump administration was supposed to happen on Monday. But on Saturday afternoon, after a little more than 24 hours in office, the administration called an impromptu press briefing for the purpose of yelling at the press1.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, visibly agitated1, gave a statement that made the following claims:

  • Spicer called Zeke Miller of Time magazine (whom Spicer identified as “one reporter,” but whom President Trump called out by name earlier today in a speech to the CIA) “irresponsible and reckless” for reporting erroneously that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Spicer strongly implied that Miller had lied about why he hadn’t seen the bust, saying Miller “tried to claim” the bust had been blocked by a Secret Service agent.2
  • Spicer accused media images of being “intentionally framed” to make the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration look smaller than it actually was (in part by arguing this was the first time ground coverings had been used on the Mall, which wasn’t true).
  • Spicer claimed that it would be irresponsible to cite any estimates of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration (or of Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington) because the National Park Service, as a rule, doesn’t release official estimates of crowd sizes.
  • Spicer then claimed that President Trump drew the “largest audience to witness an inauguration period, both in person and around the world.” He did not offer any evidence for this claim, nor did he square it with the idea that it was impossible to estimate crowd size.3
  • Spicer gave a glowing report of the president’s speech to CIA staff Saturday, then cried, “That’s what you guys should be” covering.
  • Spicer warned that while journalists talk about holding the president accountable, “I’m gonna tell you that it goes two ways. We’re gonna hold the press accountable as well.”

Spicer also delivered quick reviews of Trump’s schedule for over the weekend, but since this wasn’t a prescheduled press briefing it clearly wasn’t the point. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Trump administration believes the most important thing that happened in its first day in office — something so important that it was worth calling an unscheduled, weekend press briefing — was snapping at the press, and attempting to replace relatively well-documented estimates of the relatively paltry attendance at Friday’s inauguration with a wholly undocumented claim that this was the biggest inauguration ever.4

Defenders of Donald Trump’s candidacy and his presidential transition have often dismissed the more capricious and unpresidential aspects of his personality — his thin-skinnedness; his grudge holding; his obsession with media coverage, popularity, and ratings — as things that wouldn’t affect his administration. Either they’ve argued that the Donald Trump America has seen so far is an act that would be dropped once he assumed the burden of leading the federal government or they’ve hinted that Trump would be a figurehead who kept doing his thing while the “real” work of government went on around him.5

Saturday’s press conference put a stake through both of those rationalizations. Donald Trump didn’t appear in that briefing room; Sean Spicer and the rest of the White House communications staff bore his message forward on his behalf. Trump’s staff will represent Trump, not cage him.

Donald Trump is not becoming more presidential. The presidency, and the administration, is becoming more Trump-like.6

1These first two orange parts show a clear emotional bias that (no pun intended) colors the factual text. It is worth pointing out here that such decisions can absolutely be the product of good journalistic judgement. The “visibly agitated” especially tells us how the journalist perceived the act she is describing—and that is a part of a journalist’s job.

2Two things here. First, the reporter has unambiguously inserted her judgement in rendering implication explicitly. This is, again, part of her prerogative as a journalist. Second, I made the scare quotes green because they are truthful and accurate summaries of what the press secretary said, but the passage is lightly editorial. By breaking up his quotes you get the impression of being mocked.

3Accurately pointing out a contradiction is tricky territory. A more neutral rendering of the secretary’s remarks would suggest less to the audience about the journalist’s judgment and more about what was literally said, but highlighting such an obvious contradiction explicitly has the benefit of making the (lack of) connection between arguments clear.

4The sentiment here could be defended as a strong editorial voice at Vox; after all, they explicitly have a policy of pressing the Trump Administration’s statements hard and they have justified it. This analysis, however, makes complex assertions about motive and effect that go well beyond mere framing. I want to note, in my own editorial voice, that I agree with the assertions and analysis put forward here, but still note they pass beyond even actively editorial reporting.

5This is an unsourced, generalized argument. Even when true at a charitable standard (like this one), they are a warning that something might be amiss…

6And there it is. This is now full-blown opinion, putting forward the argument that Trump is not going to act “Presidential”. There is nothing wrong with the argument, but it does not qualify as informative news.

The actual problem with Vox—and a lot of other popular internet sites—is that they are blurring the line between information and opinion. Vox’s decision to inform the reader that Donald Trump’s statements don’t pass a certain evidentiary muster is one thing; we rely on journalists to shape our views of the world. When journalists tell us that there is no evidence for the White House’s claims (provided there aren’t), they are arming us. But when they veer into making predictions about the future or broad generalizations about behavior, they are no longer in the business of news, fake or real.

Finally, I hope you read news in this way, critically engaging with the subtext and choices the writer has made. More than any choice journalists have made, it is is the best way to ensure you are insulated against media bias.

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