September 26, 2018

Biased Media a Win for Trump

Michael Wolff. Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Over the past two weeks, the media world has been agog with reactions to the new gossipy tell-all from the West Wing, Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” The book is riddled with errors both small and large, and relies heavily on unverified anecdotes, particularly from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon’s comments have prompted the majority of headlines: He apparently called Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian-backed lawyer “treasonous,” suggested that President Donald Trump was an insane person, and attacked Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with alacrity. Trump responded in Trumpian fashion: he attacked the book as fake news, and slammed Bannon — rightly — as a self-aggrandizing boor with a penchant for overwrought drama.

But put aside all the chaos regarding Trump — after all, we already knew most of this stuff in a broad way. We knew that Trump wasn’t exactly the “stable genius” he professes to be; we knew that Bannon was a nefarious force motivated to strike down Jared and Ivanka; we knew that the White House seems to function with the force and efficiency of a hamster wheel, with Trump’s itchy Twitter thumb starring as the hamster.

There’s something else more disturbing: the tendency of the media to believe that which they find comfortable, and to disbelieve everything else. The most egregious example came courtesy of Wolff himself, who stated, “If it rings true, it is true.” The meaning of this rather self-serving phrase: If you like what you read, take it as truth. That’s the essence of confirmation bias — the bias we all have toward believing that which confirms our already-decided views. Wolff made that statement to MSNBC’s Katy Tur, who responded, “Congratulations on the book, and congratulations on the president hating it.” Can you imagine such a congratulatory message from Tur to muckraking anti-Hillary Clinton author Ed Klein? Of course not.

Then there was Brian Stelter, CNN’s supposed journalistic ombudsman. Stelter stated, “Wolff’s errors are sloppy, but many Trump experts say the book ‘rings true’ overall. My advice: Read it — skeptically.” Stelter’s own colleague, Jake Tapper, fired back, “Having many errors but ‘ringing true’ is not a journalistic standard. That said, quotes are quotes. And if facts can be ascertained by further reporting as true, that’s also a service.”

But the damage has already been done. Not to Trump — to the media.

When the entire Wolff affair is said and done, it won’t be Trump who emerges worse off.

Trump has been making political hay out of the media’s bias against him for over two years. This week, he’s attacked the media again, suggesting that next week he hopes to hold a “Fake News Awards,” which presumably will come complete with little gold statuettes. The only way for the media to fight back would be with intrepid truth-telling: double-sourced non-rumor-mongering, a real attempt to fight back against confirmation bias. Instead, the media have chosen to run with anonymous sourcing that often turns to dross; they’ve been unable to hide their smiles when the news is bad for Trump, and unable to hide their frowns when the news helps Trump. That lends Trump credibility.

When the entire Wolff affair is said and done, then, it won’t be Trump who emerges worse off. Trump is what we always thought he was: an unstable, charismatic, volatile human being. The media, however, may have blown their credibility in the desire for a cheap hit — and all to promote Steve Bannon’s personal profile. That’s a major win for Trump, not the media that hate him.


Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author, editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire and host of the conservative podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show.”

5 Questions for Rabbi Block on the New York Times

Dear Rabbi Block:

Today you announced you were cancelling your subscription to the New York Times because of what you call its biased and unfair coverage of Israel during the Gaza War.

In an op-ed in Tablet, you wrote: “I am a lifelong Democrat, a political liberal, a Reform rabbi, and for four decades, until last week, a New York Times subscriber. What drove me away was the paper’s incessant denigration of Israel, a torrent of articles, photographs, and op-ed columns that consistently present the Jewish State in the worst possible light.”

As evidence you cite numerous headlines of stories you feel betrayed a bias against Israel. You also condemn the Times for publishing numerous photos of Palestinian children injured or killed by Israeli military action.

Judging by the comments that followed your post, the vast majority of readers agree with you.  The most common response (I’ll paraphrase) was, “Now you just noticed?  What took you so long?”

But, I have some questions.  Just 5. Here goes:

1) Are there no examples of good, even excellent New York Times reporting on Israel?  Are you aware that Judi Rodoren’s early reporting on the discovery of Hamas tunnels from Gaza into Israel has been attacked by anti-Israel groups as fanning baseless fears?  Take this example from Mondoweiss

Yesterday the New York Times’s Jodi Rudoren and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer both did long reports on their visit to a tunnel in Israel just outside the border of Gaza. Neither reporter went on through to Gaza. Nope, both reports echoed Israeli fears of the tunnels and the mayhem they could unleash in Israel.

Blitzer’s report on the tunnels was promptly sent around by the Israel lobby group AIPAC, in a fundraising appeal about the “immense danger Israel is facing.” You can read the AIPAC letter below. (By the way, Blitzer once worked for AIPAC.)

That’s right, the Times' reporting was good enough for Aipac to send out to its supporters.  But it doesn’t meet your standards?

2) Are you saying that we should boycott all institutions that offend us in one way or another, even if we value them in other ways? I have tremendous problems with much of the text in the Bible—should I toss the whole thing, or argue with it? I find a lot to disagree with in American foreign policy—should I stop supporting my country, or argue to change it?  I find a lot of Jewish services dull and lifeless, even spiritually offensive—should I stop paying temple dues, or work to make them better?

3) Are you aware that Israel’s harshest critics share your view that the Times is horribly biased—but against Palestinians?  Have you read any anti-Israel web site or literature?  They claim the New York Times ranks right up there with Fox news for pushing a pro-Israel agenda.   Here is a quote from a an anti-Israel website, ifamericansknew.org:

A 2007 study of the Times’ coverage of various international reports on human rights violations by Israelis and by Palestinians found that the Times covered reports condemning Israeli human rights violations at a rate only one-twentieth the rate that it covered reports condemning Palestinian human rights violations. The investigation found that during the study period there had been 76 reports by humanitarian agencies condemning Israel for abuses and four condemning Palestinians for abuses. The Times carried two stories on each side.

Over at electronicintofada.com, Ali Abunimah regularly slams the Times for suppressing the Palestinian story.  

“It will not be news to regular readers of The Electronic Intifada that The New York Times systematically excludes all except token Palestinian voices from its coverage,” he writes.

Would you be willing to share a panel with Abunimah at electronicintifada on New York Times bias?  I’ll moderate.

4. Are you aware the New York Times unsigned editorials are consistently pro-Israel?  “There was no way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was going to tolerate the Hamas bombardments, which are indiscriminately lobbed at Israeli population centers,” reads a July 18 editorial. “Nor should he. As President Obama said on Friday, “No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders, or terrorists tunneling into its territory.”  What part of that do you find offensive?

5. You say in conclusion that you don’t expect your cancellation will matter to the Times at all.  Then why do it?

Your Letters

Mideast Media Bias

I cannot adequately express how thankful I am for your running these stories (“Is This Balanced Reporting?” May 25). I know that all the people at CAMERA who work so hard, in what is certainly a frustrating effort to counter the unbalanced reporting (especially when dealing with The New York Times, CNN, NPR, etc.), will be thrilled and delighted with this edition.

As one of the 1,500 volunteer writers for CAMERA, it made my heart rejoice that if I cannot change them, I can at least make them suffer just a little in exchange for the major suffering they cause Israel. It made all the time I put in worthwhile.

Again, thank you for the mitzvah you have performed.

Harold L. Katz, Los Angeles

Your recent critique of bias at the Los Angeles Times in covering Israel (“Journalists Behaving Badly,” May 25) was an example of the often myopic attitudes of many American Jews when it comes to this issue. While I don’t speak for the newspaper, this is a matter of interest to me as a journalist, a Times employee and a fairly observant Jew.

As concerned Jews, we are often so emotionally connected to the traumas of Israel that we see only what bothers us. The solid day-to-day reporting is forgotten and perceptions of bias by Arabs are not recognized.

Nothing sums this up better than the Orthodox Union’s Dr. Larry Eisenberg’s question about what statistics a word-frequency program would find looking at how often the term “Israeli” is accompanied by the word “intransigence.” I did a computer search of 3,154 stories with the word “Israeli” published in the Times over the past three years. After subtracting letters to the editor and commentaries, “intransigence” appeared in just 15 Times news and wire stories. Five times it was Israelis talking of Arab intransigence. Six times it was Arabs talking about Israelis.

Certainly I am sober enough to know that bias does exist, and on occasion it spins news reports. As professionals, we need to be vigilant in fighting that. But it will take more sophisticated analysis than general impressions to document the exact patterns of newspaper bias.

Jerry Hirsch, via e-mail

JCCs

The heartfelt and persuasive editorial by Rob Eshman (“Westside Renewal,” May 18) emphasizing the value of JCCs merits examination. JCCs are so incredibly valuable because they provide virtually the only adult Jewish environment that is religiously and politically neutral. It is not only this aspect, though, that is important. They provide an extensive amount of Jewish culture. Judaism’s great cultural heritage — its literature, dance, humor, food and so on — needs to be integrated more fully into communal efforts to promote Jewish identity.

Lawrence J. Epstein, Stony Brook, NY

Anne Frank

It was with great interest that I read your edition on Anne Frank (“The Never-Ending Story,” May 18). I just had the rare privilege to be present at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. for a private screening of the latest film about Anne Frank, produced by ABC/Walt Disney.

The reason for my having been invited to this special occasion was the fact that both the director, Robert Dornhelm, as well of the author of the biography of Anne Frank, Melissa Muller, are Austrian citizens.

I am mentioning this to underline the efforts taken by many of my fellow countrymen and women to look actively at this very dark side of our history and to work toward preventing anything like the horrors of the Holocaust from repeating themselves. I would like to assure you and the esteemed readers of The Jewish Journal that I shall try to make my very personal contribution to this end as well.

Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Austrian Consul General to Los Angeles

Thank you for publishing as your cover the full-color photograph of Hannah Taylor Gordon as Anne Frank — a picture revealing a young woman’s almost unbearable sensitivity, heartbreak and unshakable spirit.

Ronald Lotz, Westlake Village

Jordan Elgrably

The venom spewed forth by Jordan Elgrably’s letter (Letters, May 25) demonstrated his ignorance of the situation in the Middle East. His credibility would have been somewhat enhanced had he spoken with equal venom of the Palestinians and their heinous acts, but his attacks are directed at the Israelis.

He must have been spelunking when the Clinton/Barak plan was put forth. We were all aghast at the profound changes offered to Arafat and even further aghast at Arafat’s refusal of the plan. After all, that plan would have given the Palestinians virtually all they putatively had been seeking, including a generous approach to the refugee problem. The inevitable conclusion, it seems, is that the only plan that would satisfy the Palestinians is the destruction of Israel.

Since Elgrably is interested in cultural exchange, a worthy cause, perhaps he should best spend his time trying to remove the anti-Israel venom from Arab children’s schoolbooks. If he succeeded, he would, indeed, be worthy of an award.

Jack Salem, Los Angeles

Correction

In the May 25 Circuit, the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA) was improperly listed as a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. JHA does not receive an annual allocation from The Federation.