‘Significant’ Statement about Clinton and Email: Who Are You Going to Listen To?

‘Significant’ Statement about Clinton and Email: Who Are You Going to Listen To?

If you’ve been following the lingering story about Secretary Hillary Clinton’s use of an off-site email server, you know that there recently has been some controversy over her characterization of the FBI’s activities. When asked about Secretary Clinton’s description of the FBI activity as a “security inquiry,” FBI Director James Comey said, “I don’t even know what that means, a security inquiry. We do investigations here at the FBI.”

Depending on who you read or listen to, this either was a “very significant” statement by the director, or . . . well, not newsworthy.

When one of the mainstream news outlets gets a quote that seems to be topically relevant to a lingering story, usually others report on it, too, citing the source. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Maybe that’s because it wasn’t really significant, except from a particular political point of view. Or maybe it’s precisely because it was significant, except from a particular point of view.

Welcome to the reality of 21st Century journalism. Nothing really new . . . but definitely newsworthy.

Conventional wisdom has it that, today, “news” from some sources is defined by ideology, not professional, detached judgment. What’s interesting is that which sources suffer from this malady is a matter of some disagreement.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in the spring of 2014 that makes this point beautifully. They presented their findings in a fascinating chart you can access here.

The researchers at Pew used a set of 10 political value questions to classify respondents on the conventional liberal to conservative scale. Their variation focused on “consistency” of perspective, yielding “consistently” liberal or conservative, “mostly” liberal or conservative, and “mixed.”

The Pew Research Center then examined how the members of each ideological grouping evaluated the trustworthiness of various well-known news and opinion outlets.

What their analysis suggests gives greater substance and clarity to the conventional belief that people on different ends of the ideological spectrum believe different sources to be trustworthy.

Only one source was “more trusted than distrusted” across all ideological categories (meaning, a statistically larger percentage of the respondents in each category believed it to be trustworthy than believed it to be untrustworthy): The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, BBC and Google News were “more trusted than distrusted” by every group except “consistently conservative” respondents. The consistently conservative respondents were divided over whether these sources were, or were not, trustworthy.

Then there were the sources over which there was sharp division.

Even among sources that were classified as “more trusted than distrusted” for the sample as a whole (and these were mostly what one might consider “mainstream” or relatively traditional news operations), either consistently liberal or consistently conservative respondents were statistically more likely to find the source untrustworthy. These include: NPR, PBS, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and USA Today.

The divide on these is clearly, deeply ideological in the liberal/conservative sense. If liberals trust the source, conservatives don’t. If conservatives trust the source, liberals don’t.

No wonder it is hard to have a conversation about what is happening in this country. When there are few if any sources of information that are trusted by most people across the ideological spectrum, there may not be a common base of data from which to begin the conversation, a common reference to which all can turn to determine whether there is truth to a particular claim.

Without some agreed-upon standard of evidence, debates become battles fought with power of personality, not logic or wisdom.

But you knew that already.



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