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Kathleen Hall Jamieson and the 'attack on fact'

Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Kathleen Hall Jamieson

There’s a fairy-tale model of how a democracy is supposed to work. It fundamentally requires an informed electorate expressing its wishes through political participation, and well-intentioned legislators converting those wishes into laws guided by their best understanding of policy choices. As you may have come to suspect, it doesn't always work out that way, and there are many ways for the model to go awry.

Communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center has been for years a front-line observer and activist in at least those portions of the model that have to do with how the public gets its information. She is one of the pioneers of the burgeoning “fact check” movement in journalism, as the founder of Factcheck.org, and has often tracked through survey data the impact of political advertising on public attitudes.

I've covered Jamieson roughly one million times over the decades and have always been struck by her energizing optimism, in the face of plenty of evidence to the contrary, that there is way to get closer to that fairy-tale model. But at the end of Thursday’s talk at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance (titled “The Attack on Fact: American Politics and the Loss of Accountability”), Jamieson admitted that “this has been one depressing lecture.”

The combination of big money unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the ever-involving techniques by which moneyed special interests influence public debate and legislative action seem to have induced even Jamieson to worry about what she calls “the policy model.” In her talk, she started by going back to basics about how the model is supposed to work when it is working properly.

The policy model requires that certain groups of experts maintain a high level of public trust. This includes academics but also special institutions that have been set up to be what Jamieson called “custodians of the knowable,” organizations like the Congressional Budget Office and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both of which have been sheltered to the degree possible from partisan and ideological bias so that the public can trust at least someone to provide neutral data from which public policy debates can proceed.

She also believes that the model requires journalism to play a role that she termed “custodians of the record.” The public has to maintain some level of trust that journalism will give them access to a certain amount of neutral information, much of which journalists derive from talking to the “custodians of the knowable” and reading the reports of such academics and agencies.

But, without romanticizing how great things were in the past or how bad they have become, Jamieson sounded more worried than usual about the policy model:

Viable policy options are foreclosed and good policy is sabotaged when misinformation or calculated deception shapes policy debates… In the post-Citizens United era, legislators fear being targeted by those who can spend big money.

I note that Jamieson seemed focused less on the impact of deceptive advertising on election outcomes than she was on policy outcomes. For one example, she reached back to the famous “Willie Horton” advertisements that were used by the allies of the first President Bush in his 1988 campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts who was blamed for allowing Horton, a convicted murderer, to get out of prison on a furlough during which he committed armed robbery and rape. The ads (and frequent use of the Horton tale by candidate Bush and his surrogates) are often assigned considerable influence in Bush’s victory. But for purposes of Thursday's discussion Jamieson said:

I’m not concerned with what that did to the campaign of Michael Dukakis. I’m concerned about what it did to our discussion of furloughs in the prison system. The academic evidence, the consensus around the study of furloughs, is that they are good. They have problems, people can escape, we could keep better track of them. All of that is true. But the furlough process is in place because it reduces recidivism. And that is socially desirable. We should not have a campaign ad suggesting that it is not desirable in a way that affects the prison furlough policy.

And yet in the aftermath of those ads and that campaign, several states and the federal government canceled or changed their prison furlough policies, without any new social science suggesting that the policies did more harm than good, presumably because the politicians in charge had seen what might happen to them if a furlough prisoner committed a crime and an opponent decided to make an issue of it in a 30-second ad that would not be burdened by the need to discuss both the good and the bad that prison furlough programs can cause.

In the decades since then, Jamieson said, both the custodians of the knowable and the custodians of the truth have been subjected to an attack on their reputation for non-partisanship. “Everything becomes infected with a partisan perspective,” she said. “The accusation will be made that whoever is giving a message contrary to the one you want to hear is expressing a partisan view.”

During the Republican primaries, she said, Newt Gingrich, when confronted with CBO data that expressed skepticism about whether Republican fiscal policies would pay for themselves, replied that the CBO “is a reactionary socialist institution.”

During the fall campaign, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the official measurer of unemployment statistics) reported a drop in unemployment, former GE CEO Jack Welch, an active Mitt Romney backer, accused the BLS of fudging the number to help President Obama. “These Chicago guys will do anything,”
Welch tweeted, in a reference to the Obama reelection campaign headquarters.

Jamieson believes (and so do I) that, as difficult as it is to avoid accusations of partisanship, certain institutions, including the CBO and the BLS, have so often reported data that was unhelpful to their political superiors that their reports deserve an extra modicum of credibility. But in today’s climate that credibility is threatened.

Her most recent example was the failure of the “background check” bill on gun sales, even though polls showed that an overwhelming, almost unbelievable 90 percent of the public favors background checks. A small amount of advertising by pro-gun groups, she suggested, was enough to intimidate certain senators about the kind of ads they might face if they went along with a measure opposed by the NRA.

Here is Jamieson’s closing statement of what worries her:

There’s a sustained ongoing set of challenges for those who believe in the policy model in which one set of institutions is responsible for coming to know as best we can, and protecting the record, and  some other set of institutions is engaged in policy making. To the extent that we don’t find some way to blunt these forces that are subverting these institutions we are going to have high levels of deception backed by large sums of money wreaking havoc with the way in which we make policy.

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Comments (39)

90% and the Roots of Distrust

The biggest reason, of course, that the media has lost it's gatekeeper role is that there is good reason to distrust it. Right here, in this very post, we get the problematic 90% factoid about supporting background checks. The wording for that poll was loose and hard to understand if a person wasn't carefully following the debate closely. Follow up polling after the Senate vote showed great softening. In fact, the latest Quinnapiac poll shows that the public disapproves of how Obama handled gun control (41%-52%). The same poll showed him +3 in general approval. There is no real data to show that a vast majority of the American public was clamoring for the recently defeated bill.
And yet, here (and elsewhere) it shows up as evidence that those craven GOPers are in the grip of the NRA.
In fact, how often do you see the GOP portrayed as following orders from some industry group? All the time. But we're led to believe that Dems are simply following their conscience. Luckily, that conscience just happens to be in line with the money that's given to them. It's nice when that happens, isn't it?
The 'refs' are playing along with one side. No wonder they've lost so much trust.

Gee, I had never realized

Gee, I had never realized that there was big money behind gun control, pollution control, increased gas mileage, climate change, marriage equality, higher tax on the wealthy, etc.

I guess I had in wrong, all along.

Pro gun, anti-climate change, drill-baby-drill, "sanctity of marriage", don't tax the wealthy---all struggling, pre-bono causes of a forlorn GOP.

Thanks for setting that straight

One or the other of us proves some point made this article.

Big Money on Both Sides

Well Neal, now you know. There is lots of money on both sides of just about every contentious issue. I personally think that the opinions form and then the money lines up later. In other words, I think that even if we had publicly funded campaigns, we'd still have things like strong gun supporters in Congress.

Since Citizens United

direct funding of campaigns has become a minor part of political spending.
And one reason why the votes sometimes go against the polls is the money that lobbyists and pseudo lobbyists (people who act like lobbyists but technically aren't and avoid regulations) have at their disposal.
So the money that the NRA lobbyists have at their disposal is definitely deployed -before- opinions are set.

You're conflating

supporting the concept of background checks in general and
supporting a specific piece of legislation.

Conflating

The poll question that marked the famous 90% wasn't on specific legislation, it was on whether or not there should be more background checks. In other words, I didn't start the conflating.

Poll released

Poll released yesterday....

(quote)

Overall, the poll finds that 29 percent of Americans think that an armed revolution in order to protect liberties might be necessary in the next few years, with another five percent unsure. However, these beliefs are conditional on party. Just 18 percent of Democrats think an armed revolution may be necessary, as opposed to 44 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents

http://publicmind.fdu.edu/2013/guncontrol/

(end quote)

In the partisan search for votes it has been necessary to divide even more deeply than before.

A price will be paid.

Mr Black

We must find "...some way to blunt these forces that are subverting these institutions..."

Isn't this why your role as a reporter and the role of the press is so important to expose the misleading and/or distorted information that is vital to a functioning democracy?

Three words: Move to Amend

Move to Amend: https://movetoamend.org/

the legislation didn't match the poll question

Peder Defor is correct about the roots of mistrust. I also would have supported preventing mentally ill people and felons from getting guns, I would have been included in the 90 percent, but the proposed legislation was different than what I intended. And yet, this article made it sound as if 90 percent of Americans, a supposedly factual percentage, wanted the proposed background check legislation. The news media is not always doing a good job of distinguishing facts from partisan cant.

The actual statement was

Jamieson was paraphrased as saying:

"....polls showed that an overwhelming, almost unbelievable 90 percent of the public favors background checks....."

There is no statement about specific legislation.
And there have been a number of polls published, all showing a clear majority of Americans supporting -some- form of background check legislation. The poll questions vary, as do the specific results. 90% was a rough average calculated by some commentators.

Beating straw horses may be good politics; it's bad policy.

Background Checks

Well who doesn't support background checks? We have significant ones in place already. From what I understand some 40,000 checks are done daily.
And if the poll question didn't have any connection to the legislation, why is it being brought up in support of passing legislation?

Paul, stop digging.

sorta background checks

We don't have background checks on the ~40% of sales at gun shows and between private individuals.
And the checks that we do have are limited by the lack of a national data base coordinating state databases, which are themselves of varied quality.

40%

The 40% factoid is also problematic, as it relies on a small study that was done more than fifteen years ago. In fact, that's another example of a number that is throw out and accepted fairly uncritically from the gatekeepers, when it really should get some challenge. More on that here: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/jul/25/michael-b...

Your link

says that the 40% number is based on old data, and may or may not be accurate today. What it does not say is whether the actual current number is any more likely to be lower than higher than 40%.
What we do know is that Congress has discouraged the kind of research necessary to provide a more accurate measure.

In other words

…we're increasingly finding ourselves immersed in a political culture where policy is based on lies. Some of them inadvertent and the result of sincere, if misguided, concern, but more and more, lies told with malice aforethought and with malevolent – that is to say, partisan and self-serving – intent. In that particular political culture, I don't think any of the multiple sides involved are entirely innocent, but it seems patently obvious to me that one side, one group, one political party, has gone much farther than any other similar group to use and perpetuate lying as a commonplace and seemingly valid political tactic.

That group is, of course, the current version of the Republican Party, from the loathsome Grover Norquist, who wouldn't know what was good for the country if the concept hit him between the… um… eyes, to the equally loathsome, and intellectually bankrupt, Newt Gingrich, whose glibness has somehow been perceived as intellectual heft rather than snark, to a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who would have voters believe that restaurant workers — restaurant workers! — routinely are paid six-figure salaries. Current and former Republican office-holders wondering aloud about whether or not rape is legitimate, or whether a segregated high school prom, nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Acts were passed, constitutes a problem of some sort, merely illustrate the depth and breadth of ignorance and ideological rigidity that infects far too many in the current party.

I'm inclined to side with Richard O'Neil in suggesting that blunting these forces of untruth is part of the job description of journalism, but with newspapers in something of a death spiral and corporate governance with a foot in the door already, my own view is that our ("us" meaning ordinary citizens) traditional sources of reasonably accurate information — newspapers, network television news organizations, PBS and others — are being co-opted, intimidated through the threat of withdrawal of funding, or simply being purchased by right wing reactionaries, who then, as owners, can use their influence to color both the news content and the way it's presented.

Local television news is but one of several cases in point. Most of the "stories" are trivia of the sort that would have made up the "human interest" minute or two at the end of a news broadcast a generation ago, but which now make up the vast majority of news programming. Minus commercials, a typical broadcast half-hour is about 23 minutes, of which at least 25% will be devoted to weather and sports. An "in-depth" story might take up 2 to 3 minutes of a half-hour, barely enough to lay the groundwork for an important issue, much less present something approaching nuance.

The 'Strib devotes a whole section of the daily newspaper to, God help us, children's games, sometimes being played by children, sometimes being played by seemingly perpetual adolescents, and instead of a series of hard looks at who was paying for a new Vikings stadium, and why, and whether it was, in fact, a good use of public dollars, we got, and still get, cheerleading. Meanwhile, as a surprising op-ed in the 'Strib itself made plain last week, football is the source of thousands of brain injuries, and will eventually cease to be, simply because the NFL, college leagues, and even public and private high schools and their school boards, will no longer be able to afford the liabiity insurance, much less the jury awards for brain injury suffered by those whose parents allow them to play the game.

When a politician like Newt Gingrich attacks the credibility of institutions like the CBO or BLS, we can safely assume it's the politician who's up to no good, and there ought to be — but too often aren't — electoral consequences for that person. Good policy, policy that benefits the society as a whole, cannot be based on wishes for the future or nostalgia for the past. It needs to be based on what we have to work with now, what seems likely in the future, and what has worked, or not worked, in the past. Rose-colored glasses are not a functioning part of that discussion.

Ignorance of history

with apologies to George Santayana).
The 'Know Nothing' party of the 1850's (see Wikipedia for the gory details) has become the 'No Everything' party of the 21st century.
American Exceptionalism at its worst.

Bush Lied!

Hey Ray, do you remember the whole meme about how Bush lied us into war? You may not remember this, but repeated investigations have shown that this wasn't true at all. The intelligence community believed that Iraq was developing WMDs. Bush believed this and acted as he saw fit. Now obviously, you can question whether those actions were correct but he didn't lie about it. And yet, Dems and their allies repeated this accusation endlessly. In fact, you still hear it.
Why do they do it? Because, quite cynically, it works. Low information voters, a key Dem voting bloc, hear the lie about Bush and think him evil. If you want to condemn those loathsome folks on the left, I'm all ears.
This is just one example, of course. You don't see it because your bias blinds you to the lies and deceptions of your own side.

A match and a forest fire

There is a difference between developing WMD's and having them. We attacked Iraq on the assurance that the country had them. They didn't. That's called a lie.

Amen to that, Mr. King

Every time a right winger lies, we need to strike back and call them on it.

Because the mass media aren't doing it, that's for sure,.

Actually, you find a very apt

Actually, you find a very apt situation:

The path to war in Iraq was an extremely clear case of confirmation bias--ignore all of the results of the manifold inspections that point to the contrary and then rest all of your beliefs on a single source in West Germany that had already been proven a liar. Have your respected tool, General Powell, present a lot of pretty but imaginative pictures and a little vial of white powder, and, voila!, 10 years in Iraq. Not al direct lie perhaps, but a lot of imagination.

Again with the confirmation bias....

Confirmation bias is not a product of intellectual dishonesty, it's a statistical phenomena. Bush and Cheney MANUFACTURED facts to fit their claims. They knew these facts were manufactured but they either didn't care or didn't think it would matter in the end. This is not confirmation bias, it's dishonesty, and a war crime.

Bush himself may not have knowingly

lied, but his own statements showed that he relied on other people to think for him.
Cheney was one of those others, and his own statements showed that he knew better.

Sorry Peder, Bush DID lie

as did Condy and everyone else associated with the fraud that was the Iraq War. "Everybody" did NOT believe that Iraq was developing WMDs. The UN didn't. Joe Wilson didn't. Remember Valarie Plame? No. Bush and Cheney and co. searched and searched until they found some disaffected Iraqi, with an agenda of his own and a made-up tale, and hung their march to war on it. Bush may have wanted to believe it, because he'd decided 10 years before that he would be the one to finish Daddy's war, but he and his cronies left reality way far behind when they fabricated their rationale for invasion. Fabricating a rationale = lying.

It was all lies

Colin Powell presented a collection of regurgitated and already debunked "facts" about everything from aluminum tubes to mobile labs, and those were the same claims used to justify the invasion. Cheney set up a special group to bypass the normal intelligence process because they WERE NOT reaching the right conclusions. The Brits have now documented the same process of manufactured intel under Blair. This myth that "everyone" thought the WMDs existed is way past it's expiration date.

Thank You

Well and truly said, Mr. Schoch.

The one issue you left out, as did Mr. Black, (and likely Ms. Hall Jamieson) are the psychological insecurities born of the the dysfunctions so endemic in our society,...

dysfunctions that program many among us to be easy prey to anyone who can convince them that someone else is out to get them,...

and that if they just hand the reigns of their life to those most likely to rip them off seven ways from Sunday,...

"their side" will WIN and they, themselves we be able to feel like winners, even as their lives circle the drain at the hands of those in whom they wrongly placed their trust,...

and who have rearranged the society and our national economy to function as if they, themselves, were the "house" in a casino: a house that ALWAYS wins to the impoverishment of all those who have been enticed to believe that they can eventually and inevitably get fabulously wealthy, there, not by hard work, creativity or intelligence, but by making a big score.

Concerns about public education and public school teachers...

And their unions being ground up my untruths and misinformation in the same ways mentioned in your piece.
I am concerned about the attacks and vilification of teachers, their unions and public school education. Individuals, organizations and speakers with profit agendas are given the floor and are backed with corporate dollars to fight their singular onesided fight without any attention to the side of public school teachers and public education. Where is the press ? Where are the questions ? Where is the examination of data ? And where is the BS being called ?

Thank you, Mr. Schoch

Wise counsel. Like the calls for Obama to do "something" in Syria, easy answers are hard to find. All I can see is the need to stir the complacent, comfortable people to awareness enough to connect all the myriad dots of evidence available to us. It's not pretty, though can often be made very funny by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Perhaps our hope lies in nurturing the youth who may not have the benefit of lived history, but who seem, absent the influence of religious ideology, able to sort fact from fantasy. If that's looking through rose-colored glasses, I'm guilty. It's hard enough to influence policy in our own fair state, let alone imagine how to impact the ones being implemented in GOP controlled states now.

Let's just say it's a combination of things

Confirmation bias predisposed Bush/Cheney to lie about WMD.
I suspect that they at least partially convinced themselves, rather than cynically making up a story from whole cloth. Maybe more so on the part of Bush, who also wanted to avenge (and surpass) his daddy. All sorts of psychological(tm) issues there.

Custodians of the knowable

"The policy model requires that certain groups of experts maintain a high level of public trust. This includes academics but also special institutions that have been set up to be what Jamieson called “custodians of the knowable,” organizations like the Congressional Budget Office and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both of which have been sheltered to the degree possible from partisan and ideological bias so that the public can trust at least someone to provide neutral data from which public policy debates can proceed."

A very excellent point by Ms. Jamieson. I'll ditto the comments above on the topic of confirmation bias. Except I'd draw a distinction between confirmation bias, which does occur, and the problem of where the public believes confirmation bias exists even if it actually might not. I'd say Bush and Cheney are responsible for creating that latter problem on a national scale. If you show up at the CIA and threaten people with adverse actions unless they tilt the facts a certain way, people are going to lose faith and trust in the institution even if the threats were subjectively ignored. There were CIA agents who refused to cook their intelligence but the neocons were able to get what they were after in other ways. Very much like the "Team B" analysis in the 1980's that Reagan used to justify relaunching the arms race against the Soviet Union. The CIA knew better but who besides them knew?

I've been interested in the problem of confirmation bias on the nation's crime labs. The National Academy of Sciences, which I think retains its credibility, issued a report in 2009, based in part on earlier reports by the Department of Justice Inspector General, of confirmation bias in the crime labs. Among the victims of confirmation was Brandon Mayfield, an innocent resident of Washington State, who got caught up and implicated in the Madrid bombs based on biased fingerprint forensic analysis. So we're all at risk when people in important jobs lack integrity.

Facts

Who needs freakin' facts?
We create our own reality (and then live in it).
......without apologies to Karl Rove, et. al.

credibility

The best example that I can think of in which the credibility of respected authorities has been undermined is the global warming issue. The science is straight forward. The politics is mired in confusion.

Bus and Lies

(Instead of creating a half dozen threads, I'll just respond here.)

I'll still submit that Bush was wrong but didn't lie. A lie is a deception on purpose, not just a case of someone saying something that turned out to be wrong. (For instance, Obama was wrong on the benefits of his spending splurge, but that doesn't mean he lied about it.) I'll submit that the best case against Bush lying, is the fact that his rhetoric on whether Iraq and WMD was fully in step with that of the late Clinton years. It was also in step with statements from prominent Dems in 2002 and 2003.
In fact, I'll challenge those that want to argue the opposite case to tell me the concrete lies. Paul Udstrand, you can show the concrete examples of manufactured evidence. Tim Walker, I'm especially interested in your replies, since you find it important to 'strike back'.

I think that you can easily make a case for confirmation bias. There was an institutional belief in intelligence circles that Iraq had, or was developing, WMD. It would have been really hard for an analyst to stick their neck out and challenge accepted evidence.
Ironically, that brings us back to my objection to the theme of this article. The mainstream media can't be trusted as a gatekeeper because they suffer from confirmation bias of their own. They'll fact check statements from those they disagree with (anyone right of center). Meanwhile, it's harder for them to even know what they should challenge from people they agree with.

Obama was not wrong about

the effects of the stimulus spending.
It was about 1/3 of the amount considered necessary to revive the economy. As a result, it resulted in some improvement, but not enough.

On the Bush front, if he didn't lie then he was incompetent.
And it was he, not Clinton, who started a war.
Clinton was aware of the uncertainty and risks involved; Bush preferred black and white.

Hmmmm

Obama was very wrong about the stimulus effect on unemployment. Others, notably Krugman, argued that it wouldn't be enough, but not the Obama administration. They even famously released a graphic that showed what would happen to unemployment under the stimulus and non-stimulus scenarios. They were very, very wrong.
I've already said that I don't think Bush lied. He was wrong on some important things, the biggest probably being the impact of Hussein on global terrorism. But the idea that Iraq had, or could soon develop, WMD was in accord with the beliefs of the intelligence community.

Which intelligence community?

The NSA, or the intelligence group that Cheney set up when he didn't like the answers that the NSA gave him?

And I don't believe that Obama ever claimed that a $700B stimulus would be as effective as a $2T one; just that even the smaller stimulus (the most he thought was politically possible) would reduce employment relative to NO stimulus.

(quote)Because of the

(quote)

Because of the gravity of the subject and the President’s unique access to
classified information, members of Congress and the public expect the President
and his senior officials to take special care to be balanced and accurate in
describing national security threats. It does not appear, however, that President
Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell, and
National Security Advisor Rice met this standard in the case of Iraq. To the
contrary, these five officials repeatedly made misleading statements about the
threat posed by Iraq. In 125 separate appearances, they made 11 misleading
statements about the urgency of Iraq’s threat, 81 misleading statements about
Iraq’s nuclear activities, 84 misleading statements about Iraq’s chemical and
biological capabilities, and 61 misleading statements about Iraq’s relationship
with al Qaeda.

http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps60698/pdf_admin_iraq_on_the_record_re...

(end quote)

Intelligence Failures

Neal, I appreciate the directness of your reply, even if I disagree with parts of it. Most of the statements in the report fall fully under the heading of 'wrong in retrospect'. The rest are best described as 'overstating the evidence'. Which is problematic, but understandable. If the intelligence community believed for years that Iraq had, or was close to having, WMD, then it is understandable to treat that conclusion as a certainty. This is different than lying.
An earlier Senate report lay the blame on the intelligence community:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senate_Report_on_Pre-war_Intelligence_on_Ir...

I'd love if it the President actually gave an honest job at presenting the opposing arguments to a given policy but that's probably not realistic. Obama, for instance, has consistently dismissed opposition to him without giving any real understanding of the counter arguments. The same will almost certainly be true of the next President too.

Seriously

Call it for what it is an stop apologizing. They lied. These people were at the top of the food chain and were paid to tread carefully and get it right. And yet they consistently did none of that. They demanded that the intelligence community give them the answers they wanted to hear and now, years later, wring their hands and claim they were fed false information.

Bush may have been duped into going along with what his cronies wanted--he's not that bright after all. But Cheney knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. He cynically manipulated the system for the express gain of his buddies in big business knowing they would get massive government contracts from the war. For all their claims about how they hate government, they sure love to belly up to the trough when it comes to public funds.