I’ve been posting a lot on FaceBook (as me, not as Hitting Bregma) about the lousy journalism and logical fallacies I’m seeing on FoxNews. I don’t watch a ton of FoxNews, but I flip over somewhat regularly, just to see what’s going on. Many of these times, I’m struck by how different the coverage is. For instance, while all the other networks (regular networks and cable news) are focused on one story, like a new leak about something from the Trump administration, FoxNews will run a story about a person killed by an immigrant in a hit and run, or something equally unrelated to what everybody else is covering. I’ve also spent a lot of time harping on the classic straw man fallacies that they are so good at. They construct this ludicrous picture of a “liberal” or something that liberals are mad about, and then justifiably call them silly or hypocritical. The problem is that the whole premise gets it wrong. It’s not just FoxNews, but it’s also clearly a tactic of the Trump administration. Let’s look at a couple of key examples, including one from today.
There are lots of examples of this, but a pretty good one was the way the administration handled the “Russia leak” story. This was the story from Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post, reporting that Trump gave classified information to the Russians during a meeting in the Oval Office. After this report, Sean Spicer issued a statement calling the report false, stating that “The President only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.” This was also the crux of the statement by the Secretary of State, who issued a statement saying that they discussed a broad range of topics, but “they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.” (The lack of a serial comma is from the statement, not me; an impeachable offense on its own if you ask me.) McMaster, the National Security Advisor, gave a similar statement, using very similar words.
There’s nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember it being the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen.
But here’s the problem: the Washington Post story never said that sources, methods, or military operations were shared. The denials never denied the crux of the reporting, they denied something entirely different. This reminds me of something I see often in my real professional life. A person will present some finding at a scientific meeting, or in a lecture, and, when asked a question, they will give a long-winded answer to a totally different question that was never asked. We see it on news shows also, especially when politicians are interviewed. It’s an excellent deflection technique.
Not surprisingly, President Trump was his own worst enemy, taking to Twitter to spout off about the situation. After McMaster and Tillerson and Spicer all tried to deny the story by saying the reporting was false (by stating that things which WERE NOT reported were false), Trump tweeted: “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right do to, fact pertaining…to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
So Trump didn’t do such a good job with the denial of anything that anybody said about him. The Washington Post article specifically said that it would have been a crime if anybody else did it, but the President has discretion about what information may be shared. Trump’s tweet actually confirmed what the Post reported.
But that brings us to today. In the meantime, we’ve learned that the intelligence that was shared came from Israel. It’s been reported that the Israeli intelligence community is quite angry about Trump sharing this information without their permission. This is of course relevant because Trump is in Israel, and has now taken on the strategy of denying things that he was never accused of, but in the process admitting to what he was accused of. What did he say? “Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel.” A denial of something that nobody claimed.
For the record, I never ate green bubblegum while skipping rope.