Friday, October 19, 2012

Tips on How to Read the News

The past couple of days, I've seen a number of people linking to an article in The Nation with the headline Mitt Romney's Bailout Bonanza. Most often, the comments accompanying the link were to the effect ``Mitt Romney made 15 million off the auto bailout'' or ``Hypocrisy in action.'' These comments, taken in the context of the actual article, speak to me of poor critical reading skills. So I thought that linking to the article and putting out a few pointed comments would make an interesting lesson in critical reading of the news.

First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Mitt Romney supporter. I'm pretty soundly in the Anybody but Romney camp. I think a Romney administration will functionally equivalent to a third Bush '43 administration. If you like the trickle down economic theories that lead to the Great Recession and the Neoconservative doctrine of preemptive war that lead us into Iraq and want more of the same, vote for Romney. Nevertheless, I don't support hatchet jobs like Greg Palast's hit piece on Romney in The Nation. The article does have some fantastic information about Elliott Management's hedge funds run by Paul Singer. The investigative journalism done by Palast on that topic is both interesting and relevant. But by making it into a personal attack against Mitt Romney, Palast does us all a disservice.

Disclosures out the way, let me point out that the secondary focus of the article is a really great and detailed examination of a hedge fund engaging in behavior that most people, including myself, find pretty despicable. Even being the second focus of the article, the details take up most of the space. These details boil down down to Elliot Management, through the actions of hedge fund manager Paul Singer, basically held the government and GM hostage through targeted investments in a bankrupt company that was key supplier of parts. The primary focus of the article, which takes up far less ink, is an attempt to tie this despicable behavior of the hedge fund to Mitt Romney with some very emotionally charged language, ``Mitt chased Singer with his own checkbook.'' This statement implies that Romney was the one that made the decision to invest in Elliot Management. But then Palast immediately qualifies that assertion that by ``chasing with his own checkbook'', he really meant ``investing at least $1 million with Elliott through Ann Romney’s blind trust.''

There is a very large disparity between these two clauses of the very same sentence. One clause suggests that Romney himself was actively involved in the investment decision. The other clause states the facts, that the investment was made by a blind trust belonging to Romney's wife, Ann. In other words, in order to arrive at the conclusion that the decision to invest with Elliot Management was from Mitt Romney, the reader has to believe a number of premises that are not supported by anything in the article.

  1. Mrs. Romney's blind trust is a ruse and she actually has control over it.
  2. Mrs. Romney, in having control over her blind trust, only makes important investment decisions at Mr. Romney's behest.
  1. After the fact knowledge about what investments were made in a blind trust is morally equivalent to controlling investments in a supposedly blind trust.

The first of these is not an exceptionally controversial premise. In the past Mr. Romney himself has actually argued that most people should understand that a blind trust is little more than ruse. (See NPR's treatment Just How Blind Are Blind Trusts, Anyway? to put the issue in context.) But the second and and third premises are not only highly controversial but have no support in Palast's article. Without these premises, we cannot arrive at Palast's conclusion, ``Mitt Romney may indeed have wanted to let Detroit die. But if the auto industry was going to be bailed out after all, the Romneys apparently couldn’t resist getting in on a piece of 
the action.''

(Also note that Palast here introduces a fourth premise that he doesn't actually support, that Mitt Romney wanted the American automotive industry headquartered in Detroit to die. While there is little doubt that Romney thinks that the ``creative destruction'' of the market in laissez-faire capitalism is a good thing in general, this does not in itself in anyway imply that he ``wanted to let Detroit die.'' It could very well be that he thought that letting the market bury Detroit was the least of all possible evils given the past management decisions made by American automobile manufacturers.)

My point here is not that ``The Media'' has an inherent liberal bias. There are plenty of conservative media outlets that are the mirror image of The Nation. My point is that when we read news articles, we should read them with an eye to this sort of detail. This is especially true if the news item uses charged language like Palast uses in his article. Charged language is frequently a signal that the facts being discussed do not have as concrete of a connection to the conclusions of the author as the author would like.

One good method for sorting things out for beginning critical readers is to read news articles backwards, starting with the last paragraphs and working your way back up to the beginning. Typically, but not always, the less biased presentation of the facts comes at the end and if you read that presentation without the framing the facts in the way that the introductory paragraphs frame them, it is easier to decide for yourself if the lede accurately presents the facts.

Another good technique is for the reader to constantly ask if the facts presented not only support the conclusions that the author wants the reader to reach but bring the reader to these conclusions. Are there premises required to reach the conclusion that the article does not present? If the reader accepts all the premises of the author, is the conclusion logically necessary? Are the premises of the author plausible, probable, or well supported? These are all good questions to ask.

Lastly, we should keep in mind that if an author does not support the conclusions presented, that does not mean that the article has no merit. In Palast's article, there is some very fine investigative journalism presented concerning how Elliot Management handled its investments in a key supplier to General Motors. We can find value in Palast's journalism without accepting his conclusions about how this pertains to Romney.