Drama and questionable reasoning in the coverage of the January letter to Mueller

On Saturday, The New York Times published a letter President Trump’s legal team sent to Special Counsel Mueller in January. The outlet also published an article about it, which was dramatic and biased against Trump. Other media outlets published subsequent articles, and their coverage was also distorted. Here’s an analysis of the drama, illogic and dishonor the outlets mixed in with the news.

Drama

The New York Times’ article was 72 percent spun — and that’s the outlet that broke the story. It used dramatic language to describe the letter, such as writing that it was a “brash assertion of presidential power” and that it would “head off a historic subpoena” (that part appeared in its headline). Objective reporting would simply relay what the letter said without added drama.

Politico’s and The Associated Press’ (AP) spin ratings were lower than the Times’ — 53 and 49 percent respectively. However, Vox’s article was 92 percent spun. Here’s an example.

Trump has started using the power [to pardon] abusively and capriciously early in his tenure in office in a disturbing way, but has not yet tried to pardon his way out of the Russia investigation in part because there is one important limit on the pardon power — you have to do it in public.

The language is dramatic and subjective, although it’s stated as fact. It also purports to know Trump’s intent when using his executive power to pardon. It’s possible that he may have wielded it “abusively and capriciously,” but that would have to be substantiated with data — it doesn’t stand alone on a reporter’s opinion.

Questionable reasoning

The Times, Politico and AP had relatively little faulty reasoning, and their ratings in that area ranged from only 9 to 13 percent. Vox’s article, however, earned a 100 percent rating in that area. Consider its lead sentence.

Essentially all presidents sooner or later end up commissioning lawyers to put forward an expansive view of presidential power, but those lawyers take pains to argue that they are not making the case for a totally unchecked executive whose existence would pose a fundamental threat to American values.

The issue here is that Vox doesn’t explain what it means by “totally unchecked executive” and “American values,” nor does it specify how to determine whether Trump’s “existence” would “pose a fundamental threat” to those values. This makes the statement “unfalsifiable.” That is, it is so vague that it can’t be contradicted or disproven with empirical observation or measurable data. Unfalsifiable claims are generally considered to be outside the realm of rational discourse or scientific hypotheses.

What’s proposed in the letter may indeed be disadvantageous to the nation in some ways, but if so, it would be more logical and thorough for Vox to explain with measurable facts how it’s arriving at its conclusions.

Here’s another example from the outlet:

Consider that if the memo is correct, there would be nothing wrong with Trump setting up a booth somewhere in Washington, DC where wealthy individuals could hand checks to Trump, and in exchange Trump would make whatever federal legal trouble they are in go it (sic) away.

This type of “if … then” statement says that if “x” is true then “y” must also be true. In other words, if everything in the memo is correct, then it necessarily follows that Trump can accept bribes from his cronies and make their legal troubles go away. One would only need to find one counterexample for this statement to be false — in other words, one situation in which the memo were correct and Trump could not set up this booth. It’s possible there is no such scenario, but it’s quite a broad claim.

Dishonor

The Times, Politico and AP were negatively slanted towards the president — meaning, they suggested it’s likely that he’s obstructing justice and that the letter is simply another example of that. Vox took the same bias one step further by adding disparaging remarks. Consider its headline and subhead.

Trump’s legal memo to Robert Mueller is a recipe for tyranny
A clear and present danger to the rule of law

It’s possible Trump, whom the outlet suggests is “shady,” could abuse the power afforded to him as president, but this is written as if it were fact. Furthermore, the outlet didn’t substantiate with data its suggestion of Trump being “shady.” If the claim that he has abused power is legitimate, Vox could provide data to support it, but it didn’t. Without such data, it’s mere opinion.

Vox also posited the idea that Trump’s executive powers would help him to set up an “impunity store” that would allow his contemporaries to commit crimes and get away with them. The outlet wrote:

Having cut your check, you’d then have carte blanche to commit bank fraud or dump toxic waste in violation of the Clean Water Act or whatever else you want to do. Tony Soprano could get the feds off his case, and so could the perpetrators of the next Enron fraud or whatever else.
Perhaps most egregiously, since Washington DC isn’t a state all criminal law here is federal criminal law, so the president could have his staff murder opposition party senators or inconvenient judges and then block any investigation into what’s happening.

The dishonor creates a dramatically negative portrayal of Trump. What’s more, Vox only presented this exaggerated scenario. It didn’t consider other perspectives, such as the possibility that Trump might not abuse his authority while in office. This mix of disparaging statements and the lack of balance earned Vox a 94 percent slant rating, the highest of the four.

Conclusion

The Mueller investigation and Trump’s relation to it are complex, and little is known as to how it may proceed. The media’s added drama, incomplete reasoning and dishonor don’t help readers understand those events better — if anything, they encourage trading facts for sensationalism, as well as a lack of critical thinking. Responsible journalism would report the facts, without any of these distortions. This would empower readers to better navigate the investigation and what’s to come.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media