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Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.

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Duncan Watts and David Rothschild have a thought-provoking article in the Columbia Journalism Review:

SINCE THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, an increasingly familiar narrative has emerged concerning the unexpected victory of Donald Trump. Fake news, much of it produced by Russian sources, was amplified on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, generating millions of views among a segment of the electorate eager to hear stories about Hillary Clinton’s untrustworthiness, unlikeability, and possibly even criminality. “Alt-right” news sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller supplemented the outright manufactured information with highly slanted and misleading coverage of their own. The continuing fragmentation of the media and the increasing ability of Americans to self-select into like-minded “filter bubbles” exacerbated both phenomena, generating a toxic brew of political polarization and skepticism toward traditional sources of authority.

Alarmed by these threats to their legitimacy, and energized by the election of a president hostile to their very existence, the mainstream media has vigorously shouldered the mantle of truth-tellers. The Washington Post changed its motto to “Democracy Dies in Darkness” one month into the Trump presidency, and The New York Times launched a major ad campaign reflecting the nuanced and multifaceted nature of truth during the Oscars broadcast in February. Headline writers now explicitly spell out falsehoods rather than leaving it to the ensuing text. And journalists are quick to call out false equivalence, as when President Trump compared Antifa protesters to Nazis and heavily armed white supremacists following the violence in Charlottesville.

ICYMI: What Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Thrush all have in common

At the same time, journalists have stepped up their already vigorous critiques of technology companiesFacebook in particular, but also Google and Twitter—highlighting the potential ways in which algorithms and social sharing have merged to spread misinformation. Many of the mainstream media’s worst fears were reinforced by a widely cited BuzzFeed article reporting that the 20 most-shared fake news articles on Facebook during the final three months of the campaign outperformed the 20 most-shared “real news” articles published over the same period. Numerous stories have reported on the manipulation of Facebook’s ad system by Russian-affiliated groups. Lawmakers such as Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, have been prominently profiled on account of their outspoken criticism of the tech industry, and even Facebook’s own employees have reportedly expressed anxiety over their company’s role in the election. 

We agree that fake news and misinformation are real problems that deserve serious attention. We also agree that social media and other online technologies have contributed to deep-seated problems in democratic discourse such as increasing polarization and erosion of support for traditional sources of authority. Nonetheless, we believe that the volume of reporting around fake news, and the role of tech companies in disseminating those falsehoods, is both disproportionate to its likely influence in the outcome of the election and diverts attention from the culpability of the mainstream media itself.

To begin with, the breathlessly repeated numbers on fake news are not as large as they have been made to seem when comparedto the volume of information to which online users are exposed. For example, a New York Times story reported that Facebook identified more than 3,000 ads purchased by fake accounts traced to Russian sources, which generated over $100,000 in advertising revenue. But Facebook’s advertising revenue in the fourth quarterof 2016 was $8.8 billion, or $96 million per day. All together, the fake ads accounted for roughly 0.1 percent of Facebook’s dailyadvertising revenue. The 2016 BuzzFeed report that received so much attention claimed that the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook “generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments” between August 1 and Election Day. Again, this sounds like a large number until it’s put into perspective: Facebook had well over 1.5 billion active monthly users in 2016. If each user took only a single action per day on average (likely an underestimate), then throughout those 100 days prior to the election, the 20 stories in BuzzFeed’s study would have accounted for only 0.006 percent of user actions.

Even recent claims that the “real” numbers were much higher than initially reported do not change the basic imbalance. For example, an October 3 New York Times story reported that “Russian agents…disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service.” Big numbers indeed, but several paragraphs later the authors concede that over the same period Facebook users were exposed to 11 trillion posts—roughly 87,000 for every fake exposure—while on Twitter the Russian-linked election tweets represented less than 0.75 percent of all election-related tweets. On YouTube, meanwhile, the total number of views of fake Russian videos was around 309,000—compared to the five billion YouTube videos that are watched every day.

ICYMI: NYTimes editor apologizes after article sparks outrage 

In addition, given what is known about the impact of online information on opinions, even the high-end estimates of fake news penetration would be unlikely to have had a meaningful impact on voter behavior. For example, a recent study by two economists, Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, estimates that “the average US adult read and remembered on the order of one or perhaps several fake news articles during the election period, with higher exposure to pro-Trump articles than pro-Clinton articles.” In turn, they estimate that “if one fake news article were about as persuasive as one TV campaign ad, the fake news in our database would have changed vote shares by an amount on the order of hundredths of a percentage point.” As the authors acknowledge, fake news stories could have been more influential than this back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests for a number of reasons (e.g., they only considered a subset of all such stories; the fake stories may have been concentrated on specific segments of the population, who in turn could have had a disproportionate impact on the election outcome; fake news stories could have exerted more influence over readers’ opinions than campaign ads). Nevertheless, their influence would have had to be much larger—roughly 30 times as large—to account for Trump’s margin of victory in the key states on which the election outcome depended.

Finally, the sheer outrageousness of the most popular fake stories—Pope Francis endorsing Trump; Democrats planning to impose Islamic law in Florida; Trump supporters chanting “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks;” and so on—made them especially unlikely to have altered voters’ pre-existing opinions of the candidates. Notwithstanding polls that show almost 50 percent of Trump supporters believed rumors that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophilia sex ring out of a Washington, DC pizzeria, such stories were most likely consumed by readers who already agreed with their overall sentiment and shared them either to signal their “tribal allegiance” or simply for entertainment value, not because they had been persuaded by the stories themselves.

As troubling as the spread of fake news on social media may be, it was unlikely to have had much impact either on the election outcome or on the more general state of politics in 2016. A potentially more serious threat is what a team of Harvard and MIT researchers refer to as “a network of mutually reinforcing hyper-partisan sites that revive what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style in American politics,’ combining decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world.” Unlike the fake news numbers highlighted in much of the post-election coverage, engagement with sites like Breitbart News, InfoWars, and The Daily Caller are substantial—especially in the realm of social media.

Nevertheless, a longer and more detailed report by the same researchers shows that by any reasonable metric—including Facebook or Twitter shares, but also referrals from other media sites, number of published stories, etc.—the media ecosystem remains dominated by conventional (and mostly left-of-center) sources such as The Washington PostThe New York Times, HuffPost, CNN, and Politico.

Given the attention these very same news outlets have lavished, post-election, on fake news shared via social media, it may come as a surprise that they themselves dominated social media traffic. While it may have been the case that the 20 most-shared fake news stories narrowly outperformed the 20 most-shared “real news” stories, the overall volume of stories produced by major newsrooms vastly outnumbers fake news. According to the same report, “The Washington Post produced more than 50,000 stories over the 18-month period, while The New York Times, CNN, and Huffington Post each published more than 30,000 stories.” Presumably not all of these stories were about the election, but each such story was also likely reported by many news outlets simultaneously. A rough estimate of thousands of election-related stories published by the mainstream media is therefore not unreasonable.

What did all these stories talk about? The research team investigated this question, counting sentences that appeared in mainstream media sources and classifying each as detailing one of several Clinton- or Trump-related issues. In particular, they classified each sentence as describing either a scandal (e.g., Clinton’s emails, Trump’s taxes) or a policy issue (Clinton and jobs, Trump and immigration). They found roughly four times as many Clinton-related sentences that described scandals as opposed to policies, whereas Trump-related sentences were one-and-a-half times as likely to be about policy as scandal. Given the sheer number of scandals in which Trump was implicated—sexual assault; the Trump Foundation; Trump University; redlining in his real-estate developments; insulting a Gold Star family; numerous instances of racist, misogynist, and otherwise offensive speech—it is striking that the media devoted more attention to his policies than to his personal failings. Even more striking, the various Clinton-related email scandals—her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks—accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.

To reiterate, these 65,000 sentences were written not by Russian hackers, but overwhelmingly by professional journalists employed at mainstream news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. To the extent that voters mistrusted Hillary Clinton, or considered her conduct as secretary of state to have been negligent or even potentially criminal, or were generally unaware of what her policies contained or how they may have differed from Donald Trump’s, these numbers suggest their views were influenced more by mainstream news sources than by fake news. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. It’s a massive failure of institutional responsibility by the press. Example, from later in the article:

The problem is this: As has become clear since the election, there were profound differences between the two candidates’ policies, and these differences are already proving enormously consequential to the American people. Under President Trump, the Affordable Care Act is being actively dismantled, environmental and consumer protections are being rolled back, international alliances and treaties are being threatened, and immigration policy has been thrown into turmoil, among other dramatic changes. In light of the stark policy choices facing voters in the 2016 election, it seems incredible that only five out of 150 front-page articles that The New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail.

And also:

In this context, 10 is an interesting figure because it is also the number of front-page stories the Times ran on the Hillary Clinton email scandal in just six days, from October 29 (the day after FBI Director James Comey announced his decision to reopen his investigation of possible wrongdoing by Clinton) through November 3, just five days before the election. When compared with the Times’s overall coverage of the campaign, the intensity of focus on this one issue is extraordinary. To reiterate, in just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election (and that does not include the three additional articles on October 18, and November 6 and 7, or the two articles on the emails taken from John Podesta). This intense focus on the email scandal cannot be written off as inconsequential: The Comey incident and its subsequent impact on Clinton’s approval rating among undecided voters could very well have tipped the election.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2017 at 10:42 am

Interesting test of corporate control: WaPo blasts an Amazon product

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And both are owned by Jeff Bezos,  which is why it’s an interesting challenge. Which way will the wind blow? “Amazon wants a key to your house. I did it. I regretted it.”

Written by LeisureGuy

7 December 2017 at 2:51 pm

Desperation: A woman who apparently works for O’Keefe tried to plant a false story (about Roy Moore) in the Washington Post. She failed.

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Interesting report.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 November 2017 at 6:52 pm

Trump’s White House defies media’s superlatives

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Eric Wemple has a good column in the Washington Post:

Sample the outrage:

  • “Every administration tries to manipulate the press, but this is the most hostile to the media that [an administration] has been in United States history,” said veteran reporter Bob Franken.
  • The administration is “more restrictive” and also “more dangerous” to media outlets than any other in U.S. history, said USA Today’s Susan Page.
  • “This administration exercises more control than George W. Bush’s did, and his before that,” said veteran TV journo Bob Schieffer.
  • “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said New York Times reporter David E. Sanger.
  • “It’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press,” said Margaret Sullivan.
  • “In the past, we would often be called into the Roosevelt Room at the beginning of meetings to hear the president’s opening remarks and see who’s in the meeting, and then we could talk to some of them outside on the driveway afterward. This president has wiped all that coverage off the map. He’s the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business,” said former ABC News correspondent Ann Compton.
  • “This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with,” said Jill Abramson.

Such affinity for superlatives! Seasoned media-watchers can determine quite easily that those comments don’t pertain to the Trump White House, which lacks the discipline to execute secrecy. They all pan the media policies of the Obama White House.

They provide some perspective, too, on the study of relative media-obstruction. Franken’s objections came after photographers complained that Obama staffers had excluded them from certain events, giving preferential treatment to official White House photographer Pete Souza. Others, including Page, Sullivan and Abramson, relate to the Obama administration’s insistence on pursuing leak investigations. “Over the past eight years,” wrote New York Times investigative reporter James Risen late last year, “the [Obama] administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistleblowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.” . . .

Continue reading. And read the whole thing. What Trump is doing is worse, and he explains why.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 May 2017 at 5:42 pm

Interesting: The “most-read” stories right now in the Washington Post

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Written by LeisureGuy

23 February 2017 at 12:11 pm

Congress targets a California law that aims to give low-income workers retirement security

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Evan Halper reports in the LA Times:

ambitious California law intended to help create retirement security for low-income workers is in the crosshairs of the Trump-era Congress, which is moving to block the state and others from launching programs to automatically enroll millions of people in IRA-type savings plans.

The push is one of the most direct confrontations yet with California and other liberal states by a GOP-led Congress emboldened by President Trump’s election.

And it is intensifying the debate about whether conservatives who now control Washington will honor their pledge to respect states’ rights, even when states pursue policies out of step with the Republican agenda.

By targeting the novel “auto IRA”-style programs, congressional Republicans are also provoking one of California’s most visible leaders, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, the Democrat who championed the policy in California and nationwide and is leading a movement in the Legislature to resist the Trump White House.

The 2016 law being targeted requires employers to enroll 6.8 million California workers who currently have no access to a retirement savings account at work in a state-sponsored plan. Millions more in seven other states that have passed laws similar to California’s would also be enrolled in those states. Many more states are now weighing joining a movement that has been years in the making.

California first took steps toward creating its program in 2012. Other states, including Illinois, have been slowly implementing their own laws, which have been complicated by federal Labor Department rules governing such investment pools.

In its final months, the Obama administration gave states the green light to pursue their vision.

The state laws generally require employers with no retirement plans to automatically invest a small percentage of each worker’s pay in a state-sponsored retirement account. Employers are not required to contribute anything and workers can opt out of the program if they choose.

The first such program was expected to launch this year in Oregon. California and other states were hoping to begin next year.

Now at the urging of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of Wall Street investment firms long opposed to government-sponsored retirement programs that could compete with their own offerings, key Republicans are moving to revoke the federal approval.

“Our nation faces difficult retirement challenges, but more government isn’t the solution,” said a statement from Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), chairman of a House subcommittee on retirement issues who is taking a lead in the repeal effort.

Walberg and his colleagues are invoking an obscure parliamentary tool that gives Congress a small window to repeal new regulations. It has rarely been used in recent years because any repeal effort would have faced certain veto by President Obama. But under Trump, it is now a potent tool for Republicans to swiftly unwind Obama-era regulations.

“The results of the November election give us an opportunity to go back and correct this,” Aliya Wong, executive director of retirement policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of its effort to block California and other states from moving ahead with their programs.

No hearings are required before the full House votes on the repeal of the federal approval, which could happen as soon as next week. . .

Continue reading.

It’s really out in the open now, isn’t it? The next step will be fistfights.

And contract reporter? Shouldn’t he be on staff?

In that connection, note the GoFundMe of Pizza for the Newsroom: contribute toward buying pizza for the staff of the NY Times and the Washington Post. I have digital subscriptions to both, and they are fully worth it. And I bought a pizza, too.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2017 at 7:40 pm

Memory Lane: Government scandal/Clark Mollenhoff Division

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I just read George Eliot White’s comment in the Washington Post:

It was unfortunate that in Colbert I. King’s Feb. 1 PostPartisan blog excerpt, “Tillerson’s first test” [op-ed], Clark Mollenhoff was identified only as “Nixon’s special counsel and resident gumshoe,” making Mollenhoff sound like some sort of Nixonian goon.

Mollenhoff was a friend when I was a newspaperman covering the White House. Despite taking a year out of his journalistic career to serve as a special counsel to President Richard Nixon, he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who wrote for the Des Moines Register with few interruptions from 1942 until his death in 1991. Mollenhoff uncovered corruption in the Teamsters union when Dave Beck was its president and did much fine investigative reporting in Washington.

He deserves better.

It awakened memories, and I commented on the story:

I totally agree on Clark Mollenhof’s excellence as a reported. I was in Iowa following close his reporting in the Des Moines Register on the bidding scandal that Fairchild-Hiller surfaced. He was absolutely on top of it and it was thrilling. His reports were better than what could be found in the Washington Post or NY Times.

By chance, some decades later I met socially the man who was General Counsel for Fairchild-Hiller at the time and learned why Mollenhof had such excellent and detailed information. The former general counsel was pleased (and bemused, I think) by how much I knew of the case, until I told him I had read all Mollenhof’s articles on it. “Yes,” he said, “Mollenhof was very good to us.” I then realized the likely source of Mollenhof’s inside knowledge.

It was an interesting case: Fairchild-Hiller got the bid thrown out because the NASA guy in charge had passed along FH proprietary information to General Electric, which then won the bid. (That NASA employ soon left NASA for a highly lucrative position at … wait for it: General Electric!) As this story reports, NASA said it would re-open the bidding. “No, you won’t,” FH said, and forced the contract to be awarded on the original bids, with GE offer removed. And here’s the amazing thing: FH won the contract. (Normally, if a bidder raises a problem about the bidding that forces a re-do, an agency will (grudgingly) redo the bidding but make sure the company raising the problem doesn’t get the contract. It was quite unusual for the company that got the bid revoked was then given the contract.)

Memory lane: nothing like it. But yes, Mollenhof was a dynamite reporter, on that and other stories. I looked for his articles in the Des Moines Register.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2017 at 1:36 pm

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