Fake news isn’t always untrue: The coverage of ‘Fire and Fury’ and Trump’s mental fitness
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Fake news isn’t always untrue: The coverage of ‘Fire and Fury’ and Trump’s mental fitness

January 9, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trump calls himself a ‘very stable genius’ and Wolff’s White House book a ‘work of fiction’

U.S. President Donald Trump called himself a “very stable genius” in a tweet on Saturday, after journalist Michael Wolff’s newly-released book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” included criticisms of the president’s mental capacity. Trump said at Camp David later on Saturday that the book is a “work of fiction.”

The full tweets said:

Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence…..

….Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star…..

….to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Given it’s name, people may think “fake news” is limited only to things that are untrue.
  • But there are many ways the media can manipulate facts, and thereby influence our perception of the world.
  • We explore different types of “fake news” using the media coverage of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” as an example, and drawing on distinctions from economist Eric Weinstein.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Erratic

    President Trump, whose sometimes erratic behavior in office has generated an unprecedented debate about his mental health, declared on Saturday that he was perfectly sane and accused his critics of raising questions to score political points. (The New York Times)

    People who work with proximity to the President have sometimes questioned his erratic moods, short fuse, micro attention span and penchant for obsessiveness. (CNN)

    It erupted to the foreground last week when excerpts of Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” included anecdotes of top White House staffers painting Trump as childlike and erratic. (CNN)

  • Self-absorption

    Mr. Trump’s self-absorption, impulsiveness, lack of empathy, obsessive focus on slights, tenuous grasp of facts and penchant for sometimes far-fetched conspiracy theories have generated endless op-ed columns, magazine articles, books, professional panel discussions and cable television speculation. (The New York Times)

  • Bemused-looking

    Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — both stone-faced — as well as a bemused-looking Republican Whip Steve Scalise, Trump shrugged off the descriptions of himself in the book as the work of his fired chief strategist Steve Bannon. (CNN)

  • Norm-shattering

    In a series of Twitter posts that were extraordinary even by the standards of his norm-shattering presidency, Mr. Trump insisted that his opponents and the news media were attacking his capacity because they had failed to prove his campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. (The New York Times)

  • Roiled

    The president’s engagement on the issue is likely to fuel the long-simmering argument about his state of mind that has roiled the political and psychiatric worlds and thrust the country into uncharted territory. (The New York Times)

  • Lambasted

    The highest profile exception has been Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who lambasted the White House on Twitter as an “adult day care.” (CNN)

  • Scoffing

    Briefings and meetings have been tailored to suit his style, often to scoffing from some aides who were accustomed to working for more traditional politicians. (CNN)

  • Slammed

    In criticizing the book, Trump also slammed his former political strategist Steve Bannon, whose quotes in the book are critical of the president. (Fox News)

  • Hit back

    Earlier in the day, Trump hit back at the suggestions and accusations about his intellect and emotional state by tweeting, “my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” (Fox News)

  • Miserably

    He also reminded critics that Hillary Clinton lost miserably despite trying to raise questions about his character and mental health to voters. (Breitbart)

In a Jan. 2017 interview, economist, physicist and mathematician Eric Weinstein said, “At the moment, we’re in this crazy narrative over fake news, where fake news is supposed to be limited to things that are just made up and untrue. But the problem is … how many different ways does [the] news manipulate us into thinking something that isn’t true, or shading our feelings or emotions?” According to Weinstein, there are four kinds of “fake news”: Narrative, algorithmic, institutional and false news.

We saw a relationship between Weinstein’s distinctions and The Knife’s analysis process — particularly slant. So we further explored his four categories, how they relate to our analysis, and applied them to recent news coverage. Given the media’s significant response to Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” and Trump’s subsequent tweets, we chose this as our subject matter. We’ll also look at two additional kinds of distortion: spin and faulty reasoning.

Narrative

Hillary is going to win, it’s inevitable – remember hearing or reading some version of this during the 2016 elections? Weinstein uses this as an example of narrative-driven “fake news.” With this kind of bias, news outlets aren’t reporting information that is factually incorrect; rather, they mainly present only one, often narrow, viewpoint. This is an example of slant, or presenting news from a particular angle in a biased way.

In the coverage we analyzed of Trump’s recent tweets, there were two main narratives:

The New York Times and CNN: Trump’s tweets are proof that he is mentally unstable.

Fox News and Breitbart: Wolff’s book is, as Trump put it, a “work of fiction” and the media is again spreading fake news.

Both narratives were highly slanted. In fact, all four outlets received slant ratings above 70 percent (the higher the score, the more they reinforced the narrative). Here are some examples of how these two narratives came to be.

The New York Times is fairly explicit with its opinion about Trump, which supports its narrative. For example, The New York Times says, “Mr. Trump’s self-absorption, impulsiveness, lack of empathy, obsessive focus on slights, tenuous grasp of facts and penchant for sometimes far-fetched conspiracy theories have generated endless op-ed columns, magazine articles, books, professional panel discussions and cable television speculation.” Note how this is stated as though it were fact, but it is actually The Times’ opinion.

How Fox News and Breitbart form their narrative may be harder to spot. They support it by mostly presenting one viewpoint: Trump’s. As a result, his perspective becomes the main narrative for these outlets.

So what are some other viewpoints? One is that Trump’s tweets may not necessarily be a sign of mental illness, but rather a conscious or intuitive strategy. Weinstein suggests, for example, that Trump is adept at using persuasion. He says others, such as Scott Adams, used this understanding to predict Trump would win the election.

Considering different viewpoints and evaluating their merits is a part of critical thinking, but the media interferes with this process by emphasizing some points of view and deemphasizing others.

Institutional

According to Weinstein, it can be hard to criticize opinions that come from large, well-known institutions such as Harvard or the Brookings Institute, saying organizations like these “can sort of release what [they] claim to be objective fact and [are] given this extremely courteous reception.” But he said such institutions are also capable of “suppress[ing] some findings and accentuat[ing] others,” thereby “filter[ing] reality.”

Perhaps a close cousin of this form of bias, which we discuss often in The Knife, is when media outlets include a single expert opinion, or multiple experts with a similar bias, that supports a particular point of view. In such cases, who are we, the non-experts, to disagree?

For example, CNN quotes forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee who said on Thursday that Trump “is showing signs of impairment that the average person could not see.” But what about the experts who disagree with Lee’s position, like Allen Frances, who helped write the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the main tool mental health professions use to make diagnoses. He said professionals “shouldn’t be diagnosing at a distance, and they don’t know what they’re talking about.” Alternative views like this one were missing from CNN’s coverage, which contributed to it being highly slanted in our ratings.

Algorithmic

In many cases, our news is now being curated for us by algorithms, or the rules computers follow to make a decision, such as which news to show you. An example is Facebook’s news feed. Based on what you click on, like and share, among other things, Facebook decides what to show you and what not to, and where to put it in your feed. This is outside the domain of traditional news sites, but is still something that can affect our perception of the world.

For example, if users mostly click on conservative sources in their feeds, or they mostly share conservative sources, Facebook’s algorithm may decide to show them more conservative news sources. Over time, my feed may become an echo chamber of conservative views. So when Wolff’s book comes out, I may mostly see comments criticizing it and think this is the prevailing judgement of the book.

False news

This is when a story, or parts of it, is completely fabricated. Fact-checking is the standard defense against this kind of fake news, although some stories still fall through the cracks. Remember Pizzagate?

The Knife looks for false news as part of its data analysis, but it also looks at cases where the media was inaccurate or misleading in how it reported the facts. You can read our weekly round up of top media errors for this week here.

Spin

The Knife’s spin analysis looks at how words or phrases promote a certain viewpoint. Although he didn’t mention it as one of his four kinds of fake news, Weinstein touches on the concept of spin when he discusses Russel Conjugation, or emotive conjugation. In an article, Weinstein explains that emotive conjugation is a concept from linguistics and psychology that explains how words and phrases have both factual content (e.g. their dictionary definition) and an emotional or feeling content (the impressions we get from certain words). As a result, words and language can be used to manipulate opinions without falsifying facts.

For example, Weinstein uses the example of calling someone a “whistle-blower” versus a “tattletale.” Both are synonyms and share the same factual content, but the former is likely to give a more positive feeling than the latter.

Our team of analysts examined how this played out in the coverage of Wolff’s book and Trump’s tweets on Saturday. For example:

Wolf’s book “questions Trump’s emotional and intellectual competence.” (Fox News)

Trump was “coming off a week of heightened scrutiny over his mental health.” (CNN)

Although neither are particularly positive, do you get a different feeling from Trump’s critics questioning his “competence” compared to his “mental health?” One implies a question of ability, the other a question of illness.

The spin ratings for Breitbart, The Times, CNN and Fox News, respectively, were 86, 81, 79, 65 percent* (higher means more spun).

*Note: in our current ratings system, outlets are penalized equally for including spin in their own words and including spin within quotes.

Faulty Reasoning

One kind of distortion Weinstein didn’t touch on in his interview, but one we think he would probably agree with, is faulty reasoning. This commonly happens when news outlets use logical fallacies to make a point, such as drawing hasty conclusions from incomplete information.

Take this one, for example: We can reliably deduce people’s mental processes from their tweets or what they say.

Although the outlets don’t directly make this argument, it is something that a reader might infer from the narrative that Trump’s tweets show he is mentally unstable. While it’s possible to make rational hypotheses and predictions about a person’s thought process, we can’t know it for certain, at least not with our current technology. As Weinstein points out, people don’t always mean what they say literally, and human behavior is a complex subject.

Equipping readers with better tools

Weinstein says he’s “trying to get the power tools into the hands of the people” and that he wants to “upgrade” their relationship with the media so that they don’t feel dependent on the news to tell them what to feel about certain topics. We couldn’t agree more.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 65% Spun

  • 65% Spun

  • 79% Spun

  • 86% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“Mr. Trump’s self-absorption, impulsiveness, lack of empathy, obsessive focus on slights, tenuous grasp of facts and penchant for sometimes far-fetched conspiracy theories have generated endless op-ed columns, magazine articles, books, professional panel discussions and cable television speculation.”

Trump has written or said negative things about people in response to negative things they’ve said about him. He’s written or said inaccurate things. People have speculated in the media on Trump’s motives and mental abilities.

The New York Times

“The president’s engagement on the issue is likely to fuel the long-simmering argument about his state of mind that has roiled the political and psychiatric worlds and thrust the country into uncharted territory.”

Trump tweeted and spoke about his mental stability and intelligence after excerpts from the book “Fire and Fury” were published. Psychiatrists and politicians have debated Trump’s mental capacity and ability.

CNN

“By personally inserting himself into the debate, however, Trump did little to quiet what has become a consuming question in Washington: Is Trump’s mind sound enough to govern?”

Trump tweeted and spoke about his mental stability and intelligence after excerpts from the book “Fire and Fury” were published. Psychiatrists and politicians have debated Trump’s mental capacity and ability.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >