The Review of General Psychology describes confirmation bias as “seeking or interpreting evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations or a hypothesis in hand,” regardless of whether that information is true. While this illogical reasoning is an unfortunate human propensity, it is especially prevalent among a group whose ethical standards mandate that they avoid it – the media.
When Rolling Stone published a thinly sourced and later debunked feature on a woman allegedly gang-raped at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia, most journalists demonstrated little intellectual curiosity about the veracity of its claims, even though the writer’s professional malpractice was apparent even upon first glance at the story. After all, elected officials, social scientists and a slew of commentators insist that there, indeed, is a rape epidemic on college campuses, so of course, this piece – no matter how flimsy – was bound to be true.
But it wasn’t. In the meantime, the University of Virginia suspended all Greek activities on campus. The members of the fraternity supposedly responsible, Phi Kappa Psi, endured angry protests on the steps of their house. Even as the story unravels, the students accused are still in disciplinary limbo.
This is not unlike what just happened to Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).
University of New Orleans psychology professor Gilda Reed ran against Scalise in the 2008 contest to represent Louisiana’s First Congressional District. Despite Barack Obama’s place at the top of the ballot, Scalise still won three-fourths of the vote, and Reed took a mere quarter. A few days ago, Reed and her campaign manager son tipped off a liberal Louisiana blogger now residing in Texas, Lamar White, to “evidence” they had held for six years about Scalise’s supposed address to a white supremacy organization, European-American Rights Organization (EURO), 12 years ago.
White then wrote a blog post based on anonymous commenters’ claims on a neo-Nazi website, Stormfront, that Scalise spoke with a group of white nationalists and that he expressed sympathy for their views.
When I first saw White’s blog post linked on the Facebook pages of some of my liberal friends from Louisiana, I thought absolutely nothing of it. The blogger has a reputation as being a lone progressive voice in Louisiana, and is thus known for being a bit bombastic. He’s gotten into public spats with conservative bloggers, and his supporters have even sent death threats to those with whom they disagree.
So, I was quite surprised to see this story was picked up by the Washington Post, Politico and others as legitimate. One could reasonably think that a bitter former political opponent and an anonymous Internet neo-Nazi hardly constitute solid sourcing.
It didn’t matter. The chattering class had made up its collective mind about Scalise, and more importantly, about the nature of the Louisiana political system. They confirmed their pre-existing view of the state and the people who live there, which is likely based on age-old stereotypes and not an actual understanding of our complicated history or evolving political landscape (my fellow Louisianan Quin Hillyer explains this well).
But, in their minds, the Scalise situation went down like this: Scalise was a young, ambitious lawmaker who had higher political aspirations. Louisiana is full of a bunch of racists, so in order to win elections, Scalise was forced to genuflect to Duke and his ilk. It’s further proof, too, that the base of the GOP – especially in the South — is made up of bigoted troglodytes who have shape-shifted into a marginally more acceptable group of people, but at their core, are still pretty contemptible.
Just as they were duped by the UVA campus rape ordeal, journalists were again a victim of their own confirmation bias, and thus, the public became a victim of their resulting agenda-setting. While some – like Slate’s Betsy Woodruff, Dave Weigel of Bloomberg and even the Washington Post’s liberal blogger, Greg Sargent – handled the matter responsibly, there were those who were determined to work from that narrative, and then plug in quotes and facts as they went along.
The problem was, the facts told an entirely different story than the one they wanted to tell. In 2002, Scalise was invited to participate in a meeting of the Jefferson Heights Civic Association — the parish’s largest neighborhood group – at a Best Western hotel, organized by former David Duke aide Kenny Knight. According to Knight – who was chairman of the civic association — and others present, Scalise was asked to speak on his efforts to fight a slush fund being debated in the state legislature. Scalise, who seems to have little to no recollection of the event, spoke for 10 or 15 minutes alongside representatives from the Red Cross and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Organization, who shared insights about emergency preparedness, CPR and crime.
Later that day, another room in that hotel was rented by Knight to accommodate out-of-town guests for the EURO conference, of which Scalise, the Red Cross and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Organization were not a part. Knight claims some EURO attendees arrived early and sat in on Scalise’s fiscal policy presentation in the other room, but the vast majority of those present were their fellow residents of Jefferson Heights.
In what was apparently a good faith effort to be transparent, Scalise’s congressional office immediately (and erroneously) acknowledged he appeared at the conference but insisted that the then-state representative did not know he was speaking to white nationalists. David Duke, who granted an interview to the Washington Post, conceded that he did not know if Scalise was even aware that he was affiliated with the event. Knight went a step further, emphatically guaranteeing that not only was Scalise unaware of the EURO Conference taking place later in the day (this seems to be substantiated by EURO’s press release for the conference), but also that he had never had any conversations with Scalise about matters of race or any of EURO’s other interests.
This jives with pretty much everything that was known about Scalise prior to the discovery of that 2002 town hall. Longtime friends and colleagues quickly and publicly defended him as a man of character, and all were dumbfounded that anyone could possibly assume that the grandson of Sicilian immigrants and a fervent Catholic would ever consider aligning himself with individuals who so deeply loathe everything he is.
Even numerous Democratic politicians condemned the media’s mistreatment of Scalise, including: former Governor Edwin Edwards; former Senator J. Bennett Johnston; former state senator and whip of the Legislative Black Caucus, Ann Duplessis; and Scalise’s current colleague, Cedric Richmond, an African American congressman from New Orleans, who gave possibly the most impassioned defense of the Majority Whip.
But for many in the media, this did not seem to matter. They had made up their minds about Scalise, about Louisiana and about the membership of the Republican Party. They did not listen to those who understood the state, who tried time and time again to explain that David Duke was persona non grata in Louisiana and that Scalise would have no reason to kiss his ring. They continued to write absurd headlines, like “Republicans Try to Fix Damage Scalise’s 2002 Speech Could Do in 2016,” “Louisiana’s Long History of Racism: Why Steve Scalise Spoke to a White Nationalist Hate Group” and “Steve Scalise’s David Duke Scandal Says More About Republicans Than the Party Will Ever Admit.”
Of the many examples of “shoot first, aim second” commentary from the media, perhaps the most egregious was a USA Today editorial demanding that Scalise resign. It was posted on December 30th, even as new details emerged that ultimately exonerated Scalise of any wrongdoing.
In the piece, USA Today took the opportunity to not only attack the Louisiana Republican (“He is a staunch conservative with a voting record utterly lacking in centrist or pragmatic positions.”), but also to smear the conservative base, saying:
“The Scalise wing of the party, which includes many who identify themselves with the Tea Party movement, as well as other social conservatives, is a potent voting bloc. But it is also a major problem for the GOP going forward. Relatively quiescent during most of George W. Bush’s administration, it rose up in anger when the former president tried to sell his party on comprehensive immigration reform, and then exploded into a full-fledged movement after the election of America’s first African-American president.
“Its positions on matters such as budgets and defense tend to shift with the political moment. But its desire to confront President Obama at every step and its opposition to immigration reform are seemingly immutable.”
The rest of the media breathlessly printed the rambling, inane comments issued by organizations like the DCCC, which outrageously proclaimed that “Scalise chose to cheerlead for a group of KKK members and neo-Nazis at a white supremacist rally,” and individuals like the ubiquitous Democrat Congresswoman from Texas, Sheila Jackson Lee, whose newsworthiness on this matter – like so many others – confounds me.
Yes, there are many fine journalists who seek to understand context, represent quotes from sources accurately and who would rather get the story right than get it first. But, conservatives are still right to complain of media bias. It is real, and it sadly shapes the public’s opinion of our candidates and our positions. It is the same practice that signals to the American people not to pay any mind to the failings of the Left’s heroes – from President Bill Clinton’s perjury to the Rev. Al Sharpton’s tax dodging to the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s tenure as an actual klansman. They shrug it off as conservative paranoia, instead content to mock the concerns of well-meaning people who seek answers on Jonathan Gruber, Benghazi (their favorite plaything) or the IRS targeting of center-right organizations.
But, perhaps it lurks where we don’t often look– in the confirmation biases of those who fail to even try to understand the very people for whom they mean to write. Or perhaps they don’t mean to write for them, anyway. Why bother when they could just write for those who already agree with what they’re going to say?
Ellen Carmichael is a political consultant in Washington, D.C. She has served as a senior communications adviser and spokeswoman for a Republican presidential campaign, members of Congress, and statewide elected officials.