Monday, September 19, 2016

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to describe the Clinton Foundation without making it sound nice, because that would be biased

Updated 9/20/2-16:
Corddry: How does one report the facts in an unbiased way when the facts themselves are biased? 

Stewart: I'm sorry, Rob, did you say the facts are biased? 

Corddry: That's right Jon. From the names of our fallen soldiers to the gradual withdrawal of our allies to the growing insurgency, it's become all too clear that facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda. (Daily Show, May 3 2004, via Slapnose.)
Sometimes I think journalists have taken up Colbert's famous aphorism about reality having a liberal bias (2006, after Rob Corddry as cited above, h/t commenter Jim Tarrant) without realizing it's a joke. Seriously. They have the most fervent regard for the journalist's commandment of reporting without fear or favor, and bias is the worst crime in the book, right?

So if an overly insistent commitment to the facts makes you sound as if you're taking sides, well, then facts have to go under the bus. Not my job, says Chuck Todd.

Image via Viva Chuck Todd.
One of the weirdest stories of the weekend was out of the Times's Upshot department, by Lynn Vavreck, reporting on a survey of what registered voters know about the Clinton Foundation, or rather, as the headline said, what they don't know about the Clinton Foundation, because a good half of the respondents, 45% of the Republicans, 44% of the Democrats, and 52% of the independents) said they didn't know enough to answer any questions about it and what it does.

(Which is, for the record, to spend $200 million a year on a very wide range of activities ranging from supplying AIDS drugs to almost 12 million people to working to reduce childhood obesity in 31,000 US public schools, doing it well enough to earn an overall quality score from Charity Navigator of 94.74 out of 100 in its rating, posted just this month, as compared to, say, 97.46 for Healing Hands International, or 83.94 for Catholic Relief Services, international humanitarian agency of the US Roman Catholic community, which spends nearly three times as much money—the lower score reflects its relatively weak financial performance in growth and sustainability.)

Rather more interesting than that is the number of things they know that aren't true. Asked to respond to a series of true-or-false statements,

Among people who thought they could answer a question about what the foundation does, more than half (56 percent) think that setting up speaking engagements for the Clintons is one of its activities. This answer was chosen more than any other, including the charitable activities the foundation actually is engaged in, like combating AIDS in Africa (47 percent chose this answer), providing schoolchildren with healthful food choices (29 percent), and helping girls and women through education and training (43 percent). Although some money from the Clintons’ speeches ends up at the charity (and the Clintons may speak on behalf of the charity), booking speeches is not a central activity of the Clinton Foundation.
More surprising, 39 percent of registered voters think the Clinton Foundation manages the personal finances of the Clinton family, and 40 percent also think the foundation gives money to Democratic candidates. (It does neither of these things.)
This is none too clearly written. Booking speeches is not merely "not a central activity" but not an activity of the Clinton Foundation at all. And is that "39% of registered voters" really meant to refer back to the sample as a whole instead of the half that felt they were knowledgeable enough to answer as in the preceding paragraph?

And then whichever way it works, it's clear that the respondents didn't necessarily "think" these things until the Times asked them. They only thought it sounded right, based on the way they understood the thing—not inconsistent with what they think.

Still, it's pretty shocking. Vavreck writes,
The fact that more people — especially independents — think the charity sets up lucrative speaking engagements for the Clintons and manages the family’s personal finances than think it provides healthful lunches to school children is an indication of how willing people are to believe that even though it’s a charity — because it’s a charity set up by the Clintons — there could be tangled alliances at play.
But it's more like they have no idea it's a charity at all. For a charitable foundation to contribute to a US political party would be illegal (it's what Trump just got busted for, in the case of what I think was a successful bribery attempt on the Florida attorney general but was unquestionably a violation of tax law, whether it was a bribe or not). For a charity to be a personal finance manager, or to act as a speaker agency, would be just bizarre. They think the Clinton Foundation is a business.

And there's a a neat example of how this happens up toward the top of Vavreck's story:
The New York Times Editorial Board described it as a web of “tangled alliances” with “operational opacity.” 
It's not a charity, it's a web. And it's got those tangled alliances. One way people get the impression is through precisely this kind of bad writing, which doesn't lie so much as it elides the truth, and makes a metaphor more basic than the basic identification.
For whatever reasons, these potential complications seem to raise negative connotations for many voters. It isn’t so surprising that many voters don’t have much information about the foundation. What may be surprising is that even though there is no lack of transparency about the charitable work the foundation does, it doesn’t seem to matter. A type of negative Clinton branding seems to have taken over.
If there is "no lack of transparency" in reality (indeed, the Charity Navigator score for the foundation's accountability and transparency is 93), why did you cite that "operational opacity" 13 paragraphs up? And what "whatever reasons" do you have in mind there? Do you think "negative connotations" just arise spontaneously from "potential complications" by some kind of semantic alchemical process? Do you think that "negative branding" just generates itself the way medieval scientists thought maggots grew out of carrion? The information they don't have is what the newspapers and cable news aren't providing! You're giving people metaphors and dropping the facts in after they've decided what the story is!

It's the ominous rhetoric, and the absence of plain speaking in the headlines and ledes, that are confusing and frightening the reader. If three quarters of the population is unable to say correctly what the Foundation is, the story is really not being told right.

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