Related to my previous post, am I confident that the press can avoid moon journalism, chasing shiny objects that they can reflect to the public? I am not:
Apropos of IOP mtg, this is how much Trump dominated news coverage in the general election: pic.twitter.com/eMfXlgjh7R
— Monkey Cage (@monkeycageblog) December 2, 2016
Hillary Clinton barely got the majority of coverage of the two major party candidates during the Democratic convention (for what it’s worth, Gallup’s survey data has the same finding). The three occasions when she had the clear majority of coverage were related to bogus scandals. The point here is not the press was blindly pro-Trump — coverage of him had a reasonably neutral valance overall — but rather that Trump was allowed to set the agenda and consume all the campaign oxygen. This is consistent with coverage of the primaries as well. No non-Trump candidate’s message was ever able to break through as a major component of campaign discourse in the media. Now that the election is ostensibly over, the pattern continues with Trump’s Carrier PR stunt and victory tour.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 17:45, December 2 || No Comments »
This is admittedly not a great research question, but it’s a fundamentally important one to grounding research on the role of journalism in a mature democracy. It implies some key research questions — for example, what journalists think journalism is for, how the public understands the role of journalism, etc. — but this is conceptually a bigger question that the major institutions of the press have proven ideologically unable to grapple with.
The reason why this is so important is that an unmoored press is as likely to damage a democratic society as to serve it, and a press pointed at the wrong goals can be just as bad. The press, by which I mean the national political press, is a political institution, the only extra-governmental institution mentioned in the Constitution. But also, it doesn’t want to acknowledge that status — for example, Michael Wolff, who declared that “stenographer is what you’re supposed to be” after receiving criticism for a feckless interview with Steve Bannon, recently mocked the idea that journalism is necessarily political as a “millennial view.” Instead, the press defines itself by its reflexive ideology — that is, getting between two conflicting poles as much as possible. In an electoral campaign, that bipolar structure is essentially a given.
Placing itself conspicuously in the middle makes things very easy, and is why we have so much “he said/she said” journalism. But it also detaches the press from the idea that it plays its own unique role in our democracy. As such, journalists become predisposed to disclaim any actual impact on things that tilt toward one pole or the other. Thus they can claim at the same time that they successfully informed the public about, for example, Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest, and that the choices they made didn’t affect the outcome of the election — or in other words: “Media reported all the terrible things that make us angry about him. Voters didn’t care.”
The enormous newshole modern news organizations have to fill makes it trivial to say you’ve “reported” or “covered” something. What we know looking at the aggregate is that the Clinton email server story received three times as much network TV coverage as all policy issues combined during 2016; all that reporting can be factually correct and still present an incorrect picture to the public. To wit, the incredible word cloud based on Gallup’s summer surveys, mapping things respondents had recently heard about the candidates, may be the rosetta stone of the 2016 election (n.b., “email” defined Clinton in late 2015 as well).
The need for a bipolar structure also manifests in other important ways. Jay Rosen has written recently about what he calls “accusation-based” vs. “evidence-based” reporting. Though he was reacting to coverage of Trump’s false claim of millions of illegal votes being cast for Clinton, it was a story that fit cleanly into the press’s campaign season mindset — a partisan makes an accusation, they report it, counter-partisans respond, and they report that. It is fundamentally detached — to use another Rosen term, a “view from nowhere.” The problems with this are self-evident: If you know your claims will be repeated credulously by the press, you have no incentive not to lie like crazy. It’s especially insidious in a context like this one, whereby democratic principles come to be seen through the zero-sum lens of partisan politics.
But strangely, we can also see the press react to a unipolar environment with more willingness to be adversarial. In mid-November, we saw a mini boom of stories addressing Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and, indeed, nascent pre-inauguration corruption. These stories were known during the campaign and could just as easily have been front-paged then; they weren’t, in part because Clinton didn’t make specific campaign issues of them.
In all these situations, the press is taking an effectively nihilistic approach, as reflected quite clearly in the centrist consensus that Jonathan Chait critiques in his David Brooks-focused assessment of the mainstream, establishment opinion press. But the unmoored desires of Brooks and his peers to put themselves in the center regardless of its location isn’t a symptom of our times — see The Washington Post’s Paul Taylor from 1990:
Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.
There are a million more places I could take this, but it’s meant to be a philosophical question/blog post, and not a book. So I’m going to lay down some normative markers that I think ought to guide a period of introspection for major American press institutions:
- A free press exists to present important truths to a democratic polity.
- Truth exists at both the macro and micro levels — that is, just because you put several individual truths together, you haven’t necessarily presented a larger truth, and may have presented a larger falsehood.
- Partisan institutions don’t have a first-order interest in truth, which doesn’t necessarily mean what they say isn’t true.
- The public broadly lacks not only time-sensitive policy knowledge, but also fundamental civics knowledge.
The question then becomes, in light of these factors, what means ought the press use to achieve its ends? To be sure, major news organizations are facing institutional challenges for which they have few answers: traditional revenue streams evaporating, historically low levels of trust from the public, loss of their gatekeeping oligopoly. But they also face challenges to which they have simply failed to adapt: How to handle a president-elect who doesn’t need you, and who broadcasts lies on a regular basis? How to respond quickly to new information with both context and clarity, rather than stenography (for example, to claims from Trump that he is “handing off” his business)? How to incorporate an understanding of the potential effects of news on public opinion, as well as the value of “partisans” in the news ecosystem? These questions all have to do with the press’s willingness to stand as its own democratic institution, rather than primarily a reflexive one — a sun, rather than a moon. Without sunshine, this is where we are:
Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:59, December 1 || No Comments »
“Trump didn’t win because of X” has become a popular genre of punditry in the last two and a half weeks, along with any number of declarations backed up by little or no specific data. In the wake of concern about “fake news” and partisan echo chambers online, fed by both Russian intelligence and American hoaxsters, Facebook (and social media more broadly) has become the focal point. Keith Hampton and Eszter Hargittai make this point, but like most such analyses, don’t have data specific to actual voters; instead, they note that the demographics of Trump support are negatively correlated with social media use, and that most people don’t click through from headlines in their Facebook feeds.
But this sort of supposition ignores a range of ways that we know information filters through even pre-Internet social networks, let alone the supercharged networking that is the core function of Facebook. The point here is not to say that Facebook did or didn’t do anything, but that stitching together population-level generalities is not going to provide anything like compelling evidence.
So how do we figure out what Facebook affected, if anything, and how it did it? It’s important to have some handle on what we mean here, because no what matter we do there are going to be lots of variables tangled up in a mess of colinearity. We also need to note that getting a look at actual Facebook content is difficult to impossible, but the online environment presents a lot of problems along these lines. Survey respondents might be able to recall how frequently they visited a major source; can they recall whether or not they ever read something from one of the minor partisan sources that use Facebook as their primary distribution platform?
If actual content is out, we’re going to need to contextualize Facebook use. One way to do this is at the model level, putting Facebook use for news into an mediation model with other media use, and online and offline political discussion. Some co-authors and I have a paper in development that takes one approach to this, essentially wrapping an online version of the communication mediation model in a Facebook-based container. We find no direct effects of Facebook news use on any outcomes outside of Facebook, but significant indirect effects running through links to other media and discussion behaviors. This sort of thinking also suggests examining the relationship of Facebook shares to prominence in other media, and especially major partisan media. Facebook may act as a conduit for stories that bubble up from 4chan, Reddit, or Twitter to make their way to Fox News and conservative talk radio, for example.
Understanding potential Facebook effects at the individual level requires understanding individuals within their network contexts, as both senders and receivers of information. This helps us get at the central complicating factor of measuring Facebook’s effects, which is that everyone’s Facebook experience is different. Unlike a measurement of how often one watches network news broadcasts, for example, just asking for Facebook use frequency tells us basically nothing. However, what if we also knew something about people’s networks? In a survey this would be imperfect self-reported data, but we could ask questions about political homogeneity of one’s network, along with things like tendency to engage with agreeing or disagreeing others. An interaction term between frequency of Facebook use for news and network homogeneity would give us a measure of Facebook as a filter bubble or echo chamber; putting that in a model with reflection, elaboration, and talk would start us toward a model of how a variety of influences affect individuals’ attitudes. I have another paper in progress that utilizes an interaction term like this, and one problem with it is that it’s basically an impossible measure to validate. But that’s a problem for another day!
 This is especially weird given the ultimate closeness of the election. Anything that could have cost Clinton 100,000 total votes across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin could be said to be the reason Trump won. The existence of multiple “but for” causes doesn’t make any single one invalid.
Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:32, November 26 || No Comments »
I love blogging, but it’s obviously not the right medium for me. I’m going to try to rectify that with this series of short posts using the chaos that currently ensnares us to develop some research questions for 2017 and beyond. Some of them are strongly journalism-focused, others about campaign organization, some about information systems. I’m going to dig at the necessary research designs a bit, but I’m not thinking too much here about doability; this is more about what we should be figuring out.
The first one came to mind reading this New York Times piece on voters and non-voters, and primarily black ones, in Milwaukee County:
“We went to the beach,” said Maanaan Sabir, 38, owner of the Juice Kitchen, a brightly painted shop a few blocks down West North Avenue, using a metaphor to describe the emotion after Mr. Obama’s election. “And then eight years happened.”
All four barbers had voted for Mr. Obama. But only two could muster the enthusiasm to vote this time. And even then, it was a sort of protest. One wrote in Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The other wrote in himself.
This sort of voter profile piece is a staple of post-election reporting, particularly when a candidate under or overperforms in an unexpected way, and is presented as a way to understand the broader scope of what happened in the election. At the same time, this piece managed to find just one reluctant Clinton voter in a city that cast 76% of its votes for her (“…as did many others here” is how the story puts it). This genre existed during the campaign as well, as noted frequently by Eric Boehlert of Media Matters for America:
In general, I understand the media’s desire to try to explain what’s driving the support for Trump, who’s obviously running a highly unusual campaign and marketing his run in openly bigoted language. For a lot of people that’s deeply troubling, so understanding the dynamic behind Trump represents an obvious story of interest.
What I’m baffled by is the media’s corresponding lack of curiosity about examining Clinton voters. After all, she has accumulated more votes than any other candidate this year and is leading a Democratic surge into key states. (Why hasn’t The New Yorker published an 8,000-word piece on why Virginia has turned into a deeply blue state over the last decade?)
And I’m not alone in noting the year’s long-running disparity. Journalism professor and Clinton supporter Jeff Jarvis recently admonished the media (emphasis in original): “I never hear from voters like me who are enthusiastic supporters. I never see reporters wading among eager backers at Clinton rallies to ask them how much they like her and why.”
So the question here is a simple one: Do the voters and areas presented in mainstream press profiles represent the actual electorate that votes in the election? If not, in what ways is the presentation biased? Some of these are fairly obvious — the view of Trump as a weird insurgent, at best, or a danger to the republic, at worst, make for a Man Bites Dog story regardless of what else is going on. However, “Former First Lady becomes first ever woman to win major party nomination” is also an unusual story. Projected swing states seem likely to have gotten more attention, but the Democratic movement of Arizona and Georgia is also compelling.
This sort of study would’ve been much easier to do 20 years ago. Identifying what qualifies as the national political press in 2016 is a study on its own, and then figuring out how to find all the relevant profile pieces from, for example, CNN.com is another extensive piece of work. The difficulty of systematic sampling and the breadth of how profiles are presented suggests a qualitative approach may be the most sensible, but any comparison with real election results will need more precision than that. Assuming we find a way through the sampling process, the work is a little easier. Coding for candidate support, enthusiasm, location, history, available demographic information, and anything else that helps form a picture of the voters being profiled can be aggregated up to a model of what the mediated electorate looks like. It’s very possible there aren’t enough data points available to do a true statistical analysis, but I think that capturing the picture in the coverage is really the goal of a study like this.
Filed: Super Special Questions || 7:39, November 23 || No Comments »
For those of us clear-eyed (and arrogant) enough to consider ourselves judicial realists, it’s an incredible sight to see long-time New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse come around to what has long been self-evidently true about the Court and its members:
That’s not the case here. There was no urgency. There was no crisis of governance, not even a potential one. There is, rather, a politically manufactured argument over how to interpret several sections of the Affordable Care Act that admittedly fit awkwardly together in defining how the tax credits are supposed to work for people who buy their health insurance on the exchanges set up under the law.
Further, the case the court agreed to decide, King v. Burwell, doesn’t fit the normal criterion for Supreme Court review. There is no conflict among the federal appellate circuits. (Remember that just a month ago, the absence of a circuit conflict led the justices to decline to hear seven same-sex marriagecases?) In the King case, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., unanimously upheld the government’s position that the tax subsidy is available to those who buy insurance on the federally run exchanges that are now in operation in 36 states.
There is simply no way to describe what the court did last Friday as a neutral act.
So this case is rich in almost every possible dimension. Its arrival on the Supreme Court’s docket is also profoundly depressing. In decades of court-watching, I have struggled — sometimes it has seemed against all odds — to maintain the belief that the Supreme Court really is a court and not just a collection of politicians in robes. This past week, I’ve found myself struggling against the impulse to say two words: I surrender.
The difference between Congress voting 50 ineffectual times to repeal Obamacare and the Supreme Court deciding the wording that, just two years ago, they unanimously affirmed as allowing federal subsidies doesn’t actually do that, is that the Court faces effectively no limits on its exercise of power.
Filed: We R in Control || 14:08, November 13 || No Comments »
Politico Magazine asks today, “Why do voters believe lies?”:
If Gardner wins on Election Day, he certainly won’t be the only politician to get away with not being totally transparent, and it prompts the question: Why do voters fall for misinformation? A common refrain these days is that this is because there is a plethora of “low information” voters. If only those citizens knew more about politics, the argument goes, then the problem would be solved. But in fact, the problem is much more complex: It is often the people who are most interested and informed about politics that are most likely to adopt false beliefs.
Goal-post shifting from “believe lies” to “adopt false beliefs” aside, it’s a bit rich for Politico to run a piece blaming voter misinformation on motivated reasoning above all else. One reason that Cory Gardner’s lies (referred to even in this piece with “lies” in the headline as “equivocation”) haven’t hurt him with voters — particularly those less motivated, low-information voters — is that the press is unwilling to say that he’s lying about his previous and current support for personhood amendments. To the extent that the press is willing to challenge these statements, it’s in asides, shunted off to comically inept “fact-checking” columns, as if it’s not the job of regular reporters to check facts before printing them.
The LexisNexis archive contains 30 newspaper articles from Colorado sources in 2014 that mention “Gardner” and “personhood,” a number of which are editorials, and others of which mention personhood only in passing. In Iowa, Joni Ernst, another Senate candidate and personhood support who now claims that personhood amendments don’t mean what their text plainly says, was mentioned in only two state newspaper articles alongside personhood. That’s exactly two more than mentioned her along with “Agenda 21,” the UN development plan that she and other fringe conservatives believe is a secret plan to institute a one-world government. However, dozens mention her infamous “castrating hogs” ad from the primary campaign, a piece of political theater that sent tingles up the legs of many Washington courtiers.
A lot of misinformed people are going to vote today, and it won’t only be people whose misinformation is motivated by partisanship. A political press that allows lies to exist in a quantum symbiosis with truth bears plenty of the blame.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 15:05, November 4 || No Comments »
So I kind of quit blogging, because it was taking me too much time to develop and refine the things I wanted to write about, which is both unproductive in general and not great blogging in practice in particular. But this week I was caught by an idea I could get figured out fairly quickly.
It stems from this New Republic post bemoaning the tendency to blame the government shutdown (and ideological extremism in general) on gerrymandering. This is basically correct. The idea behind your garden variety gerrymandering is to pack as many of your opponents voters into as few districts as you can, giving them a few very safe seats and you the bulk of the seats, but with narrow margins. If you do it right, you wind up with something like Pennsylvania, which voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and also gave 13 of its 18 House seats to Republicans. But also if you do it right, you’re winning a bunch of 52-48 districts, which means you should be incentivized to run relatively moderate candidates. So it’s not a very attractive explanation for systemic polarization or individual extremism.
But what is? Well one clear one is the willingness of far-right conservatives to mount primary challenges against Republican incumbents. This is an asymmetric strategy, as liberals are far less able or willing to mount such campaigns against incumbent Democrats. Primaries are low turnout elections, and the strongly ideological are the most likely voters. That means that Republican challengers come from the right, and challenged incumbents must move right to meet them. In theory, this should make the winner of the primary (whether the incumbent or the challenger) more vulnerable in the general election, because they’ve moved away from the median voter, and the Democratic nominee can move to the center in response. And indeed, this is essentially the dynamic that we’ve seen with the awful Senate candidates the GOP has put up in the last two cycles — they are far enough to the right to win a primary contested strictly among ultra-conservatives, but the statewide electorate wants nothing to do with them.
OK, so how does the House differ? There are a few key factors here. First, Senate campaigns get much more attention from national media and the national parties than House campaigns do, on average. So when Todd Akin talks about “legitimate rape,” it becomes national news. When Kerry Bentivolio (now the Representative from Michigan’s 11th district) is called “mentally unbalanced” by his own brother, it doesn’t. Additionally, Senators don’t have districts, they have states, which experience less change than districts do based on either demographics or map changes (the latter of which never happen for states). At the district-level, voters are gradually self-segregating along political lines, creating safer districts without necessarily gerrying the mander. This has the potential to make party ID even more salient in these elections than it is for statewide and presidential elections.
Where this all points is in the direction of low-information primaries producing nominees who appeal to extremely partisan electorates, leading into general elections where party ID trumps nearness to the median voter. This is where the idea of “safe seats” shifts from incumbents to parties — these are districts in which voters are pulling the lever for the party without knowing or caring much about who the candidate is. Once they get to Washington, fealty to the movement and service to the party become the most important thing. What’s so incredible about this is that it might be as close as the US has ever come to installing a parliamentary system. The problem is that the rest of our system isn’t designed to handle a parliament — the Senate gets in the way, the President gets in the way, the 10th Amendment gets in the way, etc. Our House has to push as hard as it can to get through all those veto points, and as long as its relatively undisciplined among its parties, that’s fine. A House that is discretely divided is going to have a tendency to break our system, and that tendency isn’t going to go away when the present crisis ends.