Liars figure

By Christopher Harper

Figures don’t lie, but liars figure. 

Mark Twain’s quotation couldn’t have described Dana Milbank of the Washington Post any better.

Milbank, one of the most-biased political analysts in Washington, set out to prove that Joe Biden is getting worse press than Donald Trump. 

“After a honeymoon of slightly positive coverage in the first three months of the year, Biden’s press for the past four months has been as bad as—and for a time worse than—the coverage Trump received for the same four months of 2020,” Milbank writes. “Sure, Biden has had his troubles, with the delta variant Afghanistan, and inflation. But the economy is rebounding impressively, he has signed major legislation, and he has restored some measure of decency, calm, and respect for democratic institutions.”

Milbank bases his analysis on artificial intelligence evaluation of news sources, providing a “sentiment analysis” in which Biden does not do well.

But Milbank doesn’t list the usual caveats researchers have about such analysis. The simple, one-dimensional sentiment model from negative to positive yields rather little actionable information for a client worrying about the effect of public discourse on one’s reputation. As a result, the AI analysis should be put through the hands of actual humans.

These misgivings would stand in the way of a good story. So, Milbank, the liar, uses his illicit figures. Here is the fog of journalistic war against Trump:

FiscalNote, combed through more than 200,000 articles from 65 news websites (newspapers, network, and cable news, political publications, news wires, and more) to do a ‘sentiment analysis’ of coverage. Using algorithms that give weight to certain adjectives based on their placement in the story, it rated Biden’s coverage in the first 11 months of 2021 and the coverage President Donald Trump got in the first 11 months of 2020.

“Sentiment analysis ranks coverage from entirely negative (-1.0) to entirely positive (1.0), and most outlets are in a relatively tight band between -0.1 and 0.1. Overall, Biden was slightly positive or neutral for seven months, ranging from 0.02 to -0.01. That plummeted to -0.07 in August – a lower number than Trump hit in all of 2020 (or 2019) – and has been between -0.04 and -0.03 ever since. Trump never left a narrow range of -0.03 to -0.04.”

As noted earlier, a human has to sort through these data—an expert human rather than a journalist who’s often guilty of confirmation bias, which basically means he sets out to prove his point rather than interpreting the actual information.

I’ve done what is known as content analysis, where two analysts sift through the news to determine its bias, a system that has its flaws but is far more time tested than what Milbank uses.

But the liar doesn’t let these problems stand in his way as he pontificates on.

“How to explain why Biden would be treated more harshly than a president who actively subverted democracy? Perhaps journalists, pressured by Trump’s complaints about the press, pulled punches. Perhaps media outlets, after losing the readership and viewership Trump brought, think tough coverage will generate interest….

“Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

Milbank’s argument doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s difficult for anyone to believe that Biden is getting worse press than Trump. It’s simply a way to try to turn the conversation back to blaming Trump for everything that has gone wrong in the world for the past century. 

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