TV coverage of North Korea: The blurred line between fact and opinion
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TV coverage of North Korea: The blurred line between fact and opinion

August 10, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US agency says North Korea can fit nuclear warhead inside missile, Washington Post reports

A confidential report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency says North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit inside a ballistic missile, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday. The report was dated July 28 and was read to the Post. Also last month, the U.S. determined that North Korea had up to 60 nuclear weapons, a number that has not been independently verified, the Post reported.

According to the newspaper, the DIA report says that the intelligence community “assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles.”

U.S. President Donald Trump responded to the report on Tuesday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he told reporters. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power – the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

On Saturday, the 15-member United Nations Security Council unanimously approved additional sanctions against North Korea in response to its missile test last month. The sanctions would result in an estimated $1 billion loss in revenue for North Korea, whose total annual export revenue is around $3 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.

MSNBC and Fox News

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow discussed the North Korea report in the Tuesday edition of The Rachel Maddow Show. She said North Korea’s rhetoric about its nuclear weapons program had not changed, but that the U.S. response had. “Regardless of the extent of [North Korea’s] nuclear capability,” Maddow said, the statements from the White House are a “new variable here that we have no idea how it’s going to affect” the situation.

Fox News’ Sean Hannity also gave a monologue about North Korea on his show Hannity on Tuesday night. He said that U.S. policy on North Korea during the Clinton and Obama administrations “ignored” the “problem” and has made the situation worse. Hannity said there’s “no good option” for addressing North Korea, and concludes his monologue by saying “the world” must “confront this evil.”

Additional source: The Washington Post.

See full transcript from Hannity and The Rachel Maddow Show

Distortion Highlights

  • The line between fact and opinion in the news is becoming more blurred.
  • This is especially notable in cable TV news, where anchors often insert opinion and spin while reporting the facts.
  • To examine this trend, we analyzed opening monologues on North Korea by Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

Read between the lines. Learn how news outlets distort the information.

Top Spin Words

  • Evil Radicals

    You cannot appease, you cannot capitulate to evil radicals and rogue dictatorships. (Hannity)

     

  • Increasingly Dangerous

    Now President Trump is facing an increasingly dangerous and very difficult situation with North Korea and the reason why? (Hannity)

  • Fox and Friends-style stuff

    Since the election, mixed in with all this Fox and Friends-style stuff, [the National Enquirer] repeatedly [keeps] going back to: Trump declaring war on dictators. (Maddow)

  • Crisis Point

    And then, under the Obama administration, the North Korean threat increased rapidly and literally have turned this into a crisis point that President Trump now has to deal with. (Hannity)

  • Unprecedented craziness

    And there is a brand new, totally unprecedented craziness and surrealism problem in the U.S.-North Korean relationship that for the first time includes our own government. (Maddow)

  • Naive

    Of course Bill Clinton was naive; he turned out to be completely wrong. (Hannity)

    Yes it can, and it might be very soon, thanks to the naiveté of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who are following in the footsteps of Chamberlain until President Trump, today, has to confront a threat and there are likely no good solutions, no good outcome here. (Hannity)

  • Wolf Paws

    And also we’ll strangle you with our wolf paws. (Maddow)

    Clear and Present Danger

    The president tonight now faces a clear and present danger, not only for the United States, but now the entire world. (Hannity)

  • Stupid Decisions

    Literally stupid decisions of the past were made when it comes to trusting dictators, rogue regimes. (Hannity)

  • Doomed

    If we don’t learn from the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat them. (Hannity)

Historically, newspapers made a clear division between hard news and opinion. Objective news was presented in the front section, while the editorial pages gave opinions and commentary. The line was clear, and readers knew which section was which. On television too, news anchors reported the facts, while commentators expressed their opinions and analysis separately.

While this structure still exists in theory, the line between fact and opinion is becoming blurred, as reporters and anchors insert opinion and spin in their rundown of the facts. This has contributed to more sensationalism and a polarized society that may be less equipped to critically examine and resolve our problems.

To examine this trend, we analyzed Tuesday’s coverage of North Korea’s reported nuclear capabilities and Trump’s remarks on the subject. We put aside print media and instead analyzed the opening monologues of Fox News’ Hannity and MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show.

Hannity and Maddow: Opposite yet the same

As far as their political views, Hannity and Maddow might seem like polar opposites. One expresses conservative perspectives, the other liberal. One favors Trump while the other opposes him. But they’re similar in that they both mix opinion with fact, and play news anchor and commentator at the same time.

Here are a few examples of how they present opinion as fact. We list the comments they made on air, followed by a brief analysis in italics.

Hannity:

1.  “There is a mindset today that says ‘Oh, evil can’t happen in our time.’ Well I hate to be the bearer of bad news. Yes it can, and it might be very soon, thanks to the naiveté of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who are following in the footsteps of Chamberlain until President Trump, today, has to confront a threat and there are likely no good solutions, no good outcome here.”

  • Assuming from context that “evil” refers to the potential use of nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t be solely the fault of Clinton and Obama’s supposed “naiveté.” Presumably other administrations, other countries and North Korea’s own leaders would have responsibility too. Also, calling previous American presidents naive is disparaging.

2. “literally stupid decisions of the past were made when it comes to trusting dictators, rogue regimes.”

  • Does Clinton’s decision to agree to a disarmament deal with North Korea mean he trusted the country? Not necessarily. Hannity may not know exactly what the risk assessment or level of trust was when those decisions were made. This statement could make previous leaders look “stupid,” which is also dishonorable.

3. “And in the case of the Obama administration – remember they drastically cut our strategic defense capabilities – not a smart thing.”

  • What’s the fact here? That defense spending fell during the Obama administration (see Fact Comparison below for more details). It’s opinion and relative to say that wasn’t “smart.”

4. “Basically the Clinton administration, the Obama administration, they ignored the problem.”

  • Ignoring something implies that they didn’t notice or pay attention to the North Korea situation. But both administrations had policies on North Korea, so they were probably paying attention to it — just likely doing something Hannity didn’t agree with.

 

Maddow:

1. “There is a brand new, totally unprecedented craziness and surrealism problem in the U.S.-North Korean relationship that for the first time includes our own government.”

  • This is subjective name-calling. What Trump and his administration have said is data, but calling it “craziness” and “surrealism” is opinion.

2.  “…the just wild incoherence of the administration.”

  • To say that the incoherence is “wild” is subjective, not factual.

3. “How about the National Enquirer? That’s often a surprisingly blunt translation of how the president would like the world to see him.”

  • Maddow presents the above as objective truth, as if she knows how Trump wants the world to see him, instead of owning that this is her own opinion.

4.  “What our new administration is doing with this new, maybe strategic, maybe off-the-handle, attack on North Korea – this rhetorical attack from the president on North Korea – the only thing we know for sure is that they are playing with absolute, un-theoretical fire by advancing the conflict in this way.”

  • Are Trump’s comments necessarily “advancing the conflict”? We don’t know for sure, as Maddow said herself.

 

Fiction
or
Fact

MSNBC

“But we really never had an American president playing I’m rubber, you’re glue with the North Koreans in terms of their threats for nuclear holocaust before.”

On Tuesday, Trump stated, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

FOX News

“And then, under the Obama administration, the North Korean threat increased rapidly and literally have turned this into a crisis point that President Trump now has to deal with.”

A timeline of the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program can be found here.

FOX News

“You cannot appease, you cannot capitulate to evil radicals and rogue dictatorships.”

None. This is pure opinion.

Fact Check

Inaccurate

Hannity: “President Obama gave that rogue regime in Tehran 150 billion dollars in loads of cash…remember the plane loads of cash and other currencies…remember the mullahs in Iran.”


The Obama Administration did not give Iran $150 billion. The Iran agreement unfroze assets that were being held by international financial institutions. The money had belonged to Iran, but U.S. sanctions prevented countries and businesses from returning it to Iran. According to FactCheck.org, the exact dollar amount of the assets is not known, but outlets such as The Washington Post estimated it to be worth around $100 billion. The money that was delivered to Iran from the United States via plane, which included an initial shipment of $400 million and a later shipment of $1.3 billion, was part of a legal settlement that the U.S. owed Iran from the 1970s.

Hannity: “And in the case of the Obama administration…remember they drastically cut our strategic defense capabilities…not a smart thing.”


While defense spending did decrease during Obama’s eight years, it may not have affected U.S. military strength or been the direct result of the administration’s actions. According to Politifact, defense spending increased in 2010 and 2011, and decreased in the years that followed (until 2015). Politifact cites two reasons for the funding reduction: troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, and a sequestration rule that forces cuts across all departments if Congress doesn’t agree on a budget deal. When Congress didn’t agree on the budget, cuts were enacted across all military and non-military departments.

Obama later requested a 7.8 percent increase in defense spending between 2015 and 2016. Politifact also notes planned upgrades to the Navy’s submarine fleet, the Air Force and the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Regardless of the fluctuations in funding, the United States spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Hannity: “Now President Trump is facing an increasingly dangerous and very difficult situation with North Korea and the reason why? It goes back decades to the Clinton administration.”


This may misrepresent the efforts by multiple U.S. administrations to address North Korea’s nuclear proliferation over the years. For example, Eisenhower, Ford, George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush all had interactions with or signed sanctions against North Korea, in addition to Clinton, Obama and Trump. See the Timeline below for more information.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

States: Trump is bellicose.

According to Merriam-Webster, “bellicose” means “favoring or inclined to start quarrels or wars.” This would imply Trump favors starting armed conflict with North Korea, yet there is no evidence provided that this is his intent.

Considering there are many other issues that many Americans consider important, like immigration or the economy or healthcare, Hannity’s opinion could suggest U.S. policy regarding North Korea will become more important than those issues. It may also imply that the current diplomatic conflict will escalate.

Timeline