Lots of drama, little data: The coverage of Gina Haspel’s CIA nomination

When President Trump announced that he would nominate Gina Haspel for the position of CIA director on March 13, the press immediately wrote about the concerns some senators had voiced regarding her role in interrogation tactics, such as waterboarding, that are considered by many to be torture. Those concerns may be valid and could impede her confirmation — yet in their coverage, news outlets didn’t explain why or how those past experiences could disqualify her. Sunday’s coverage didn’t cover that either, and instead news outlets spun her reported deliberations with added drama. In other words, sensationalism replaced factual information.

Here’s a look at how the four sources The Knife analyzed distorted the information.

Added drama and subjectivity

The Washington Post’s coverage was 56 percent spun. It was the least spun of the four, yet in a way it set a low standard for the other outlets, given they used the Post’s report as a starting point (Politico’s and Fox News’ articles were 84 and 79 percent spun, respectively). The Post used dramatic terms such as describing Haspel’s deliberations as “drama” that has “sparked trepidation” at the White House, and describing her potential confirmation hearing as “brutal.” Here’s another example.

But others have disputed any characterization of Haspel as some kind of cheerleader of the harsh treatment of detainees …

These dramatic, subjective terms support the notion that Haspel’s past is a problem, but they do so through sensational language, implication and emotionality, not with data or logical reasoning. The lack of data in this regard can also misrepresent those involved: it suggests Haspel should be disqualified, and portrays those who support her (such as Trump and White House officials) as wrong, and those who oppose her nomination (mostly Democrats) as right. There may be merit to these points, but they’re not substantiated with data. It’s all based on spin.

Vague terms

The easiest way to make something controversial is to call it “controversial.” If you look up the definition, which means a discussion marked by opposing views, pretty much any debate could be considered “controversial.” However, calling something “controversial” brings in a sensational element. The Post used this term to describe the CIA program in question, and Vox used it to describe Haspel herself. It then wrote:

Despite the controversies, the White House has continued to push for Haspel’s appointment.

The term may grab readers’ attention due to its alarming nature, but it’s vague and subjective. What’s the cut off point that makes something “controversial”? In Vox’s case, the term also suggests Haspel’s nomination is a problem, and that the White House is wrong to support it.

Spin that favors certain parts of Haspel’s past

Politico emphasized the senators’ concerns by giving them prominence in its headline and lead sentence.

White House gears up to push CIA nominee as concerns mount 
The Trump administration was prepared Sunday to push ahead with Gina Haspel’s planned confirmation hearing this week to lead the CIA, despite mounting questions about her tenure at the spy agency.

The spin here supports the same slant, which in a way validates the senators’ concerns (again, without data-based arguments) and suggests she should be disqualified. “Despite” is one of the more subtle spin terms, in that it disproportionately weighs data. Consider how these other outlets also employed the term, suggesting her past should stand in the way of her nomination.

Short, the White House legislative affairs director, told Haspel she could still be confirmed despite the information that had recently come to attention (sic) of the White House … (The Washington Post)
According to the Post, Short, the legislative affairs director, told Haspel she still could be confirmed despite her history. (Vox)

Spin that favors the opposite perspective

Fox News suggested the Trump administration was right to continue supporting the nomination, and used spin to support that notion. Its headline and lead further suggested the press secretary was right to come to Haspel’s defense:

Sarah Sanders touts Trump CIA pick Haspel, blasts 'hypocrite' Dems who oppose nominee
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders forcefully entered the debate over President Donald Trump's choice for CIA director Saturday, tweeting that any Democrat who doesn’t back nominee Gina Haspel is a “total hypocrite.”

Similar to the other outlets’ use of spin, Fox leads readers to conclusions using vague, emotional terms, rather than data.

What spin supplants

The Post was the only outlet of the four that mentioned the CIA program in question was authorized by then-President George W. Bush, that it was briefed to members of Congress, and that it was “deemed legal” by administration lawyers. While that authorization doesn’t mean the interrogation tactics employed weren’t torture, this information broadens the scope from just Haspel, whom the outlets implicitly blame.

As noted earlier, spin often replaces objective information that could better inform readers. In these articles, there’s very little data about Haspel’s career with the agency, other than she served most of her tenure undercover, and that she’s held the position of acting director since the former director was confirmed as secretary of state. So, little or no data is presented about her qualifications for the position, her views for running the agency, or whether the situations in question would disqualify her.

Without a precise understanding of Haspel’s experience, what the current issues are, and how responsibility would be assigned to her and all others involved, readers may walk away with an ill-founded negative impression of the nominee and her chances of landing the new role.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media