Affinity Bias and the White House Scandals

Obama CopeI’ve been thinking a lot about why so many journalists I follow went so wrong on the supposed White House Scandals this week. I think it has a lot to do with affinity bias. And that does not speak well for the state of journalism.

A lot of people wonder why, for example, conservatives often hold opinions that are just wrong. Throughout the Bush administration, Fox News viewers were systematically misinformed about important issues. Why was that? It’s quite simple: they trusted Fox News. And that is not only acceptable, it is necessary. We can’t independently become experts on every issue we hear about. So we find people who we trust as experts and believe what they say.

Of course, it pays to be selective. Anyone who gets their information from cable news is cruising for a bruising. In general, I think that MSNBC is a lot better than Fox News. But that isn’t always case. I think Fox News has done a better job under Obama than they did under Bush. It’s all been pretty bad, though. MSNBC has done better generally, but I think they were soft on Obama during the campaign. At times they act as apologists for the Obama Administration—especially certain shows. Regardless, I think that MSNBC does a better job of informing liberals than Fox News does informing conservatives. Of course, the best conservative print publications are better. Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Josh Barro of Bloomberg View are both fact based. I wish a lot more conservatives got their news from people like them.

There really is a difference between what liberals and conservatives think about things even when they are working off the same set of facts. And that should be enough. But instead, generally conservatives get different facts than liberals do. I think this is about 90% the fault of conservative media, but it hardly matters. My point is that we’ve got to trust someone.

I’ve worked very hard to find people who I feel I can trust—people who will not knowingly deceive me and will admit when they are wrong. I still feel very dependent on these people. But not always. For example, most of them went crazy this last week. They acted as though there was something to all these scandals. There were damned few people like me who were pushing back against this. And my question is: why?

I think there is a problem with being too plugged into the media structure—something that I cannot be accused of. And in this case, all the liberal commentators were trying to prove that they weren’t just partisans. If the Obama administration had done something wrong, they were going to hold it accountable. The problem is that this kind of thing is just as bad as blind partisanship. From Monday on, there was no information that implicated the White House. Yet much of the reporting was of the type that I saw coming from Greg Sargent: very cautious concern.

This week I wasn’t exactly kind to Obama. I blasted him about firing Steven Miller. And I’ve been very hard on him about the Associated Press, even though the scandal is systemic and not especially Obama. But I didn’t fall for the theatrics, which I correctly labeled a “perfect storm of bad sandal-like news.”

So why didn’t the others see this? I think it is the same thing as for all of us: we have people we trust. Unfortunately, many of the people I trust, themselves trust Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico. (I avoid reading them if I can.) They are the very definition of “Washington Insider.” And they create a kind of sports reporting approach to politics. Indeed, in his “nothing to see here” article yesterday, Ezra Klein wrote, “On Tuesday, it looked like we had three possible political scandals brewing. Two days later, with much more evidence available, it doesn’t look like any of them will pan out.” But the evidence that became available between Tuesday and Thursday didn’t change the facts as the Monday CNN report did change Friday’s ABC “facts.” All that changed was that the commentariat had a chance to calm down.

The whole thing reminds me of The Ox-Bow Incident. The media depended upon its trusted connections to believe that something happened that the facts just didn’t support. Ezra Klein and others are always quick to note that a stunning revelation could turn any of these supposed scandals into real scandals. But that’s always true. It could turn out that Obama got an Oval Office blow job by an intern. Or that Michelle had Vince Foster killed. Or maybe they both fired the people in the travel office to give their friends a job. Any of this could be true. But barring any actual, you know, facts, it is just a big game of telephone played by journalists who really ought to be smarter than the average cable news viewer.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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