Thank you, Dana Milbank, for reminding everyone computers will someday replace humans in the critical thinking category.
I know of at least one who could be replaced by a toaster and no one would notice.
The Washington Post columnist this weekend claimed the media have been harder on President Joe Biden in his first year than they were on former President Donald Trump in his final year.
How does he know? Because a computer told him.
The press, he wrote, “pulled [its] punches” for Trump and is now aiding authoritarianism by going after Biden with such vim and vigor.
Put aside for a moment the underlying subtext to his column, which is: To save democracy, journalists must publish only flattering news stories on the most powerful man in the free world.
Put aside Milbank’s assertion that unflattering stories about Biden’s stalled agenda are worse somehow than all the news reports accusing Trump of treason and sedition — stories that turned out not even to be true.
Let’s also put aside the fact Milbank’s column pits election year coverage against coverage of Biden’s first year as president.
Put all that aside, and just play along.
“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.
This is astonishing, he adds, considering all the crises Trump created and oversaw last year, including the federal government’s sluggish and disordered response to the coronavirus pandemic and the president’s own attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election.
“Sure,” he concedes, “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.”
By “calm and respect” for “democratic institutions,” does he mean attempting to do several end-runs around the Supreme Court? Talking of court-packing and filibuster-busting?
But back to Milbank’s main point: Because journalists are harder now on Biden than they were on Trump last year, as the computer shows, they are failing our sweet, precious, core democracy.™
You're supposed to be nice to the Democrats! After all, it's called "democracy!"
But wait — isn't Milbank implying that the media have become the “enemy of the people?” I sure hope not, because such claims made one Dana Milbank very upset when Trump said the same thing.
“We need a skeptical, independent press,” Milbank argues. “But how about being partisans for democracy? The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.”
This is an amazing rationalization of his own partisanship and that of the broader media.
“Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs,” he adds, “between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”
So, exactly how did Milbank measure media coverage of Biden versus Trump? He consulted the algorithm.
“Artificial intelligence can now measure the negativity with precision,” Milbank writes. “At my request, Forge.ai, a data analytics unit of the information company FiscalNote, combed through more than 200,000 articles — tens of millions of words — 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 the coverage Biden received in the first 11 months of 2021 and the coverage President Donald Trump got in the first 11 months of 2020.”
He adds, “The findings, painstakingly assembled by FiscalNote vice president Bill Frischling, confirmed my fear: My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy.”
Here’s how he explains the research:
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. (The data set doesn’t go far enough back to make a comparison to Trump’s first year in office.)
You've got to be kidding me.
A computer can’t tell the difference in “sentiment” between a story about Trump challenging the results of the 2020 election and Biden sucking wind on Capitol Hill. It’s childish to believe otherwise. By the way, it’s important to note the data measure only differences in neutrality in tone. The research says nothing about whether the coverage is pro- or anti-authoritarian. That’s all Milbank’s doing.
Also, do you know what isn't measured by the algorithm? The unflattering Biden stories that major newsrooms either downplay or ignore — or even censor. What about those? Where does burying the Hunter Biden laptop story measure? How did the algorithm measure all those reporters falsely dismissing the laptop story as Russian disinformation? How did the algorithm measure journalists ignoring the story of Hunter Biden’s ties to a Chinese-owned blood mine?
How did the algorithm measure the moment the press allowed themselves to be used by the Biden administration for an Arlington Cemetery photoshoot promoting his disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal? How does the algorithm measure the sudden disappearance of media COVID-19 death counters now that Biden is president? Did the algorithm not pick up the difference in media coverage of Trump’s executive abuses and, say, Biden unconstitutionally extending a COVID-19 eviction moratorium, which prevents landlords from evicting delinquent tenets?
Let me consult with my abacus. I’ll get back to you when I have an answer.