Distrust But Verify

MPR News asked yesterday:

How do you know when the news you read is true?

That one’s easy; I don’t.

Everything you read or hear or watch on the news is subject first and foremost to…

  1. The facts that are available to the reporter at the time they have to produce the report.  In late-breaking news about spectacular events, these facts are very often wrong.   After that comes…
  2. …the reporters’ deadlines.  Especially in broadcast media, especially Cable TV with its 24 hour cycle; they’ve gotta put something on the air.  So often as not they’ll report what they have, whether it’s complete or reliable or not.   After that comes…
  3. …the institutional bias of the news organization.  Now, as I’ve written in the past, I don’t necessarily think that all news media start out in the morning in a conference room with an editor exhorting the staff to “go out there and win one for the Democrats!”, except at the MinnPost, which seems to have taken over the Minnesoros Independent’s niche.  But I think it’s fairly clear that most reporters’ personal backgrounds, educations, social networks and frames of reference are largely left of the proverbial center, and that at the very least confirmation bias is as much a factor in reporting the news as it is among consumers.

At the risk of sounding provincial, I trust Euro media more;  they’re at least honest about their political biases.  You read the Frankfurter Allgemeine for a center-right take (by European standards), and Die Zeit for a perspective from the left, and make up your own mind.  European media dispenses with the fiction of objectivity, and for that I trust them more.

Dina Temple-Raston’s report re the Boston Marathon Bombings the other day was a classic example:  before the dust had settled, the first words out of her (and NPR’s) mouths in re possible suspects were that the FBI was looking at “right-wing extremists” because it was Tax Day, and Hitler’s birthday, when they worry about right-wing attacks on government and foreigners.

Now, I’ll take Temple-Raston at her word that she reported something someone in the FBI said about the subject at some point.  And given deadlines and the urgency of the story, she and NPR had to put something on the air.

The problem is that Temple-Raston’s report would make someone who doesn’t pay much attention – or who implicitly trusts NPR news – think that there IS an actual pattern of “right-wing” violence of any kind, to say nothing of spectacular attacks like Boston, associated with Tax Day, or that there’s some pattern of “right-wing” violence against foreigners in the US.

Neither is the case.

It’d have been like a news organization reporting the Catholic church’s sex scandals going to great pains to say “the FBI wants to rule out the gay community first”, when there had been no behavior that would have led anyone to casually conclude that the gay community was ever involved.

It would have been a made-up association; a symptom of systematic bias.

Just like “right wing violence on Tax Day”.

And yet NPR floated it as “news” until facts caught up with them.

So as with all news, I distrust but verify.




9 thoughts on “Distrust But Verify

  1. The weird thing about the ‘tax day’ smear is that tax day isn’t a big deal anymore for most people. Only about half the people pay income taxes. If you make significant money, you pay income taxes quarterly. My federal income tax burden is less than half of SS+medicare tax, and I assume I’m an average taxpayer.

  2. But I heard the exact same story on ABC-NBC-CBS-MPR and read it in the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. With that many sources reportin it, it MUST be true!

    Or . . . they’re all recycling the same Associated Press story based on a Southern Poverty Law Center press release, in which case none of it is true.

  3. The SPLC is a good example of media bias. Most journalists — even those who really believe that they are unbiased — will accept whatever the SPLC says uncritically. Conservatives know that the SPLC is primarily a fund raising organization, that they get very poor marks for financial management, that they have a dim grasp of statistics, that they don’t seem to understand the difference between hereditary and congenital traits, and that the entire operation is designed to extract money from baby-boomer liberals in Northeastern states and funnel it to Morris Dees and his cronies.

  4. I have a fairly straightforward heuristic in these matters:
    I don’t believe anything I read in the newspapers, especially the NYTimes
    I don’t believe anything I see on TV, especially Public TV
    I don’t believe anything I hear on the radio, especially NPR

  5. The MPR story Mitch links to does not, of course, mention that many media outlets — all liberal — falsely connected the bombing to people on the Right.
    Instead they obsess about the early reports, quickly debunked, that a Saudi national was a suspect.
    No reason to jump the gun about young Islamic men from Saudi Arabia!
    This seems to be the narrative that the Left is pushing now — that the big media mistake regarding the bombing was the half-assed reporting that a young Saudi male was suspect, not the slandering of half the country by suggesting that they celebrated ‘Hitler’s birthday’.
    They are insane. I mean it. After 9/11, they think the country is in some sort of blood frenzy when the media sort of identifies a suspect as a person sharing all the traits of the 9/11 hijackers.

  6. From a journalistic point of view, the problem with the SPLC isn’t that it’s biased. Everyone is biased. The problem is that its claims are not testable.

    Nobody fact-checks the SPLC. Nobody even demands that they provide a workable definition terms like “hate group”, “patriot group” and “militia”. If they had such a definition, anyone else would be able to go around American surveying the political landscape, apply that definition to all the groups they find, and come up with similar numbers.

    The SPLC is very good at one and only one thing: putting out press releases every year claiming yet another increase in the number of “hate groups”, “patriot groups”, etc. Does anyone even ask the casual question, if there’s such an increase in “hate” in America, why aren’t we seeing more of the effects of it? Given the supposed ever-increasing number of “hate groups”, one even has to ask for their definitions of such obvious words as “hate” and “group”. In the absence of any such definition, it seems that “hate” means “political opinions we disagree with” and “group” means “two or more people”.

    Without any definitions of their terms, there is no way to fact-check them, and any responsible journalist should assume that they just pulled their numbers out of thin air, and aren’t worth repeating. Their press releases are nothing more than agenda-driven agitprop, with the agenda being “White people hate Mr. Obama because he’s black.” If a serious reporter wants to report on the SPLC’s ever-alarming press releases, they should confine themselves to writing something like “The SPLC believes that white people hate Mr. Obama because he’s black.” That statement would be true, because it’s a statement about what the SPLC believes, but there’s absolutely no reason to take their “group” counts as anything resembling actual data.

  7. Here is the SPLC’s “Hate map”: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map
    All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

    You could spend a lifetime figuring out what is meant by ‘immutable characteristics”, since sex, race and sexual orientation are not immutable.

  8. All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.
    Don’t like nazi’s? You’re a hater.

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