Friday, January 26, 2024

News vs. opinion vs. analysis

Newspapers have three basic products that they sell. 

The first is news: this is reporting on things that are happening. This can look different based on who the newspaper is trying to sell news to. A business newspaper writes up news on business, a local paper on local happenings, or the New York Times on literally anything alongside an overemphasis on New York City (more on this later). Selling news can be made better by figuring out how you can get news earlier — beating the other papers to the scoop creates value. In-depth news can also create value (also more on this later).

The second is opinion. Businesses do have opinions, and one of newspapers' goals is often to carry out the opinions of their owners ("News overworld"). Early newspapers didn't distinguish between news and opinion, they simply published their opinions as news. This went away with the penny press. Newspapers would prefer that you did not think about this, but it is a part of their goal. They want you to think in a specific way or to agree on certain terms, and have an editorial team and an editorial board who decide what the official opinions of the newspaper are. Opinion, which is still journalism, is meant to give perspective on the first product of news. Opinion sections try to appear more objective by publishing opposite-to-the-editorials (op-eds) that disagree with the editorial board or add some value in some way.

The third product is more hazy, and is where newspapers have created a lot of value: analysis. Analysis is very hard. It is easy to reproduce news from the happenings around you. Local newspapers love to write articles such as "Man Bites Dog" or "Criminal Kills Victim." These are easy to write, get plenty of attention, and require little analysis. A more advanced article would be "Man Bites Dog After Wife Killed By Criminal." At this point, we are doing some kind of analysis. We are explaining that the reason why the man bit the dog is potentially out of insanity after his wife was murdered. If you didn't have a skilled journalist who explained this connection, you would have to have figured it out on your own, or you may not have learned it. Analysis isn't exactly opinion though — analysis can be done without injecting opinion. That does not make it bias-free. You can never truly eliminate bias. 

All three forms of news product are filled with bias. News is supposed to be objective, and while in theory it can be, it is unlikely that it becomes so. What you choose to report on is important. Amenona Hartocollis, Harvard alum NYT reporter, wrote a bazillion articles about Claudine Gay and her antisemitism controversy. From Can We Still Govern by Don Moynihan:

Another problem in the Times is that writers about higher education aren’t actual experts on higher education. In many cases, they treat higher education purely from a culture war perspective, building on narratives of woke students and besieged conservatives. For example, Anemona Hartocollis, the Harvard alum reporter who is writing obsessively about Gay wrote warm personal profiles of a Princeton professor disciplined for having sex with students and then lying about it and his wife (a former student). She also wrote sympathetically about Ilya Shapiro, the conservative who resigned from Georgetown after being investigated for denigrating a Supreme Court nominee as a “lesser Black women.” The reporter later treated Shapiro as an expert on Black history, despite the fact he is now working with Rufo at the Manhattan Institute in their anti-DEI campaign.

Sometimes, bias is welcome. An art-oriented reader of the Financial Times may be very irritated that they do not consider the creatives' perspective on global affairs. FT does not care, because they report on the global affairs from the finance perspective, and unabashedly do so. Sometimes bias is more insidious. The sources you use, the people you talk to, the way you present their statements in prose all introduce bias to reporting. Bias does not come directly from the "news" aspect — it comes from trying to create value from the news.

For the same reason, opinion is obviously biased. Opinions are meant to be convincing, so they are supposed to understand their readers and figure out how to convince them of something. You can vary in your level of convincingness. There is at least 40,000 words worth of controversy surrounding the diversity of opinions that the NYT presents to its readers, for example. You can make assumptions about your readers. In my opinion, good opinion writing does not make assumptions about your readers' opinions. You can make assumptions about their knowledge — for example, while writing about zoning you may assume that your audience knows some basic information about the structure of US government. Assuming your readers' values is tenuous but sometimes necessary. To use the zoning example again, an assumption that I regularly make is assuming that my readers want to make life better for people with low-to-moderate incomes. I see this as simply "supporting good things," but not everyone agrees on what my definition of "good" is. 

Analysis can be biased in the same way the news deliberation can be biased, so I will not go into depth again. However, I think the biggest issue with analysis is that it often sucks. Analysis is hard, and worse, uninteresting to many readers, so the incentives are skewed against it. In a similar way, this creates bias. The biases of what generates revenue impact what newspapers produce.

What really bothers me is when analysis is decent but is also biased. This is what grinds my gears about The Economist. They have very intelligent journalists and editors, and create fantastic analysis. It just so happens that they have accepted certain assumptions, such as that the West and its allies are always correct, so they do not consider some angles. The Economist is also very transparent, though. They don't really try to say that they are completely unbiased. They will tell you that they support (classic) liberal values, and that they want a world with a lot more of that. 

The New York Times is not one such paper. They do not try to tell you that they have biases, rather ignoring them. They do, especially at the editorial level, make assumptions, however. The Times makes a lot of choices on what to report on. Claudine Gay resigning gets 27 articles, a witch hunt against Palestinian students and their allies gets zero. Opinion columnists at the Times have a variety of perspectives, but on a topic like Israel and Palestine, foreign affairs columnists spread the gamut from two states to a middle finger. 

One of my favorite columnists at the New York Times is Ezra Klein. He has a lot of good ideas. He founded Vox. His main topic of interest is how do we a) make a better world b) get everyone to go along with it. Over the past couple years, he has spoken a lot about domestic issues, but he did stumble into the debate on Israel's war on Gaza several times. 

I listened to the "'I Have No Idea How This Ends. I’ve Never Seen It So Broken.'" episode of The Ezra Klein Show, which was actually very interesting. Klein interviews Thomas Friedman, another NYT columnist. They both self-identify as supporters of Israel, and were being very critical of Israel for a whole hour. But there were still some incredibly frustrating flashpoints that illuminated the blind spots that Klein (and Friedman) hold. They discuss South Africa's hypocrisy on several points relating to calling war a genocide (South Africa has not condemned the Russian invasion and has hosted Hemedti of the Sudanese RSF), then Klein points out that some criticism should be directed towards the US and what we support. He mentions a poll of Gazans asking how many of them have a family member who was killed or injured (64%) and another survey of Gaza's buildings to see how many of them have been destroyed (50%):

And it’s sometimes hard for me, as somebody who’s fundamentally sympathetic to Israel and who believes that America should support Israel in areas of legitimate self defense, to look at what has been done in Gaza and see something that we should still be supporting. I mentioned that poll about how many Gazans have lost a family member. But here’s another. There’s this analysis of satellite data by two researchers, found about half of all structures in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. It is very, very hard for me to believe — and I have heard nothing from the Israeli side that makes me believe it — that that was necessary to stop Hamas or make Israel safer as opposed to a kind of collective punishment that we would condemn elsewhere and properly so.

Even more blind is what Friedman, his interviewee, responds with:

So not only do I share your view, but thousands of casualties ago, I did a column called ‘Time for Some Tough Love’ by Biden to Israel on exactly this issue, urging the U.S. to support a cease-fire in return for the hostages. And get out of Gaza, and let’s get NATO and American troops on the border. But this has to stop.

It has to stop because it is unjust. It’s horrific. And it’s going to — besides devastate Palestinians, it’s going to be a stain on Israel that it will regret, I think, one day.

Maybe, just maybe, there is a reason behind this. Maybe there is a reason why Israel is doing this sort of collective punishment against Palestinians. Y

ou could say that Israel is reacting to Hamas' attack on 10/7 (which wasn't just Hamas), and that if an equal proportion of Americans died on 9/11 (~40,000, by my math), our attacks would have been just as brutal. Is that some sort of justification? I would say no. Lying to people about weapons of mass destruction then invading Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands, is a stain on our country. But why did we do it? Did we do it because we hate terrorists so much, so we had to find them and kill them all? Or did we do it because our own actions meddling in the Middle East created an environment so untenable that it gave pockets for radicalists like Al-Qaeda to come to fruition, leading them to attack the US, and that our pre-existing biases against people from the region (Muslims, to be specific) allowed us to quickly justify enormous attacks that murdered innocents? 

Maybe Israelis don't like Palestinians. This isn't because of Netanyahu. It didn't just start three months ago, or in when Hamas took power in 2006, or when the Oslo Accords failed in the 90s. It didn't even start in 1967, or 1948. Just look at how Israel treats everyday Palestinians. You could say that Gaza is a terrorist hotbed, and as a result, it makes sense to treat everyone there with suspicion. What about the West Bank? There is no Hamas there. Why does Israel treat them like that? It is deeper than just Hamas attacking or Netanyahu ignoring. Moshe Dayan, former defense minister of Israel, eulogizing a farmer killed in a kibbutz near Gaza:

Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.

The Israelis know that they live on land the Palestinians owned. This is not me editorializing, rather me pointing out that this is literally what Dayan is saying. The Israelis kicked Palestinians out of homes they have the deeds and the keys to, and declared that to be their property. 

Friedman calls the Palestinian Authority corrupt and feckless. He never stops to analyze why they may be corrupt and feckless, and what the alternative is. Is the alternative to the PA a friendly technocrat who will simply bend the will of occupied people to support their occupier? Friedman seems to think so. Friedman points out that the PA's collaboration with the Shin Bet (the Israeli FBI) has prevented a lot more Israeli death (true). Collaboration with the Shin Bet has also certainly kept Mahmoud Abbas in power at the PA. The Shin Bet would definitely not step in to help the Palestinians being killed by their occupier neighbors.

Friedman talks about how Netanyahu is really bad (true):

So Netanyahu insists on coming to Congress. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will not invite him. And he manipulates the Congress to get himself invited through the Republicans.

I did a column at that time. It was rather controversial. I said, you AIPAC can manipulate Congress to get Bibi an invitation to speak at the U.S. Congress. But you know where Bibi can’t speak? He can’t speak at the University of Wisconsin.

I wrote in that column, Ezra, that if Bibi Netanyahu were to try to speak at the University of Wisconsin, they would have to bring out the National Guard. Today, Ezra, they’d have to bring out the 82nd Airborne.

Yes, of course Netanyahu cannot speak at the University of Wisconsin. Not because the university would prohibit him, but because it would be so ridiculous that thousands of people would travel there just to protest a global symbol of occupation casually speaking as if he is simply sharing some friendly opinions. 

There is so much more that happens in this article that is just bizarre. Friedman brings up the Muslim Brotherhood:

(Biden) also believes, I think, that Hamas is ISIS, a really evil organization, that not only Israel is telling him needs to be destroyed but, quietly, every pro-American Arab leader is telling him the same thing. We tend to assume that Biden is only acting because of what Israel is saying. But I guarantee you there are a lot of Arab leaders who do not want to see Yahya Sinwar walk out of Gaza alive.

A lot of Arab leaders who? Since when did we weight the requests of dictators heavily? Why do we privilege the requests of tyrants? This is just bizarre. 

Let’s remember, Egypt’s government wiped out, quite violently, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is Hamas is just the Palestinian equivalent of that. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. do not allow any manifestations of the Muslim Brotherhood.

??? The Muslim Brotherhood led many peaceful protests in 2011. As a result, Egypt has locked 60,000 members in prison and caused many others to be political refugees. Why do we even care what Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. permit? Those are not liberal, free countries. Hell, women couldn't even DRIVE in Saudi Arabia until 2017! That's really recent!! What the heck!!!

I am disappointed when I hear undeniably intelligent people say things that are just entirely ridiculous. Interrogate your assumptions. When journalists let their biases get in the way, they create bad journalism. It's okay to believe things that others don't agree with. But justifying your biases instead of interrogating them fails you in the "the free exercise of a sound conscience" that the New York Times claims to care about.