Happy birthday to the runoff!
Congratulations! You’re reading the 53rd edition of the runoff (minus the International Roundups). If you’d have told me last February that I would still be writing this thing a year later, it’s likely I would have offered in response a bemused and slightly anxious expression. Because the truth is, we spun up the runoff before sinkhole’s launch as a way to preview the sort of work we intended to feature – balanced, exploratory, empathetic. My plan, originally, had been to gently wind it down as other features took its place.
But – the news cycle, in 2017, was punishing.
If you followed the news on a daily (or as I did, on an hourly) basis, there was a very real chance you were going to get whiplash. Looking that closely at anything – and Donald Trump’s presidency has been referenced recently, and appropriately, I think, in various outlets as “the binge-watched presidency” – tends to induce a little dizziness, and it can be difficult to keep track of the big picture as one is absorbed in the minutiae. For this reason, it felt increasingly important to keep the runoff going, to take the weekly view, to provide context and, as the months wore on and I found my (tenuous) handle on events, some analysis.
Over the past week, I’ve been reviewing all of my posts and conducting a source analysis, to see how well I’ve done in practice at implementing the whole balanced-exploratory-empathetic thing. In particular, I’ve been interested in the following questions:
How many sources did I use for news?
- How often did I use nonpartisan news sources?
- How often did I use liberal-leaning news sources?
- How often did I use conservative-leaning news sources?
- Which sources did I rely on the most?
How often did I use primary sources?
How many sources did I use for analysis/commentary?
- What was the ratio of liberal to conservative?
- Which sources did I rely on the most?
A brief note about methodology: the liberal-conservative dichotomy is just not at all indicative of the nuance I found in sourcing. Just about all news outlets aim to be unbiased, is the frank truth, but biases can be tricky to eradicate, and they tend to creep back in in interesting – but often very different, outlet-to-outlet – ways. This is to say that I did not have a quantitative method of assigning those labels “liberal-leaning” or “conservative-leaning.” I did not assign scores based on particular metrics or anything like that. The labels were, instead, based on reading history and public reputation. The ideology was, obviously, much easier to discern when it came to commentary and analysis.
If I’m still writing the runoff a year from now (insert: bemused expression), I’ll look into using a more formal scoring system, but for now, this is what we’re rolling with.
For those who, like me, love to take a gander at primary sources whenever possible, I’ve published the entire spreadsheet online, right here. I’d very much recommend (implore!) you peruse this, and point out any issues you find – the last thing I want is to make the same mistakes over and over.
For the rest of you, here are the takeaways:
I linked out to 72 different news sources over the course of the year.
In fact it was more, because I grouped some sources into Primary and Local categories. But we’ll stick with 72 to make it a little more digestible. These included the big standard outlets like NPR and Reuters, but also more specialized sites, like Ars Technica and Business Insider.
The ideological breakdown is as follows:
- Balanced/Unbiased sources: 53.21 percent
- Liberal-leaning sources: 41.04 percent
- Conservative-leaning sources: 4.15 percent
- Unclassified sources: 1.89 percent
There are clear successes and clear failures here. The fact that more than half the time I linked out to news sources that are either balanced or nonpartisan is obviously good. These include the wire services, Reuters (which, at 12.83 percent, was the source I used most often) and the Associated Press, along with behind-the-scenes sites like POLITICO, The Hill, and Axios. They include outlets like Bloomberg and Newsweek, too, that tend toward straightforward coverage, along with research institutions/firms, like Pew Research Center and Gallup. They also include primary sources, which, when grouped, make up 9.62 percent of all the sources I used – good enough for third most, behind Reuters and NPR (10.09 percent).
The bad is simple: when you exclude the balanced/unbiased sources, the percentages skew in one direction. Why is this? Two reasons, I believe. The first is that I relied a lot on the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN. These three sources comprised 23.77 percent of all my sourcing, and for good reason: they’re massive journalistic enterprises, with just metric tons of firepower and piles of cash and long storied histories of breaking stories. One easy rule I made for myself: always link to the source that broke the story, whenever possible. This meant, quite often: the Times, the Post, and CNN.
The second reason the percentages skew: Google. The search engine plays an outsized role in sourcing – after checking the wire services, I tend to migrate to Google and try out various combinations of key words for major news stories, and then do a lot of scanning the search results and clicking around. I rarely use the first story I click on; most of the time, I’ll read three different versions of the story before I settle on a source. And the frank fact of the matter is that most of the sources that populate the queries are not conservative-leaning. Most of the sources Google tags as “In Depth” or “Highly Cited” aren’t, either.
What this tells me is I need to reduce my reliance on Google, a little bit, and start to develop a source list I can rotate through – which in fact I have done. My hope for 2018 is to expand my use of primary sources and balanced/unbiased sources, and to diversify a little better when it comes to the rest, although I suspect, for reasons mentioned above, that the Times, the Post, and CNN will continue to provide a bulk of the sourcing.
Oh and those “Unclassified sources”? These were primarily international outlets, like The Telegraph and BBC.
When it comes to linking out to commentary and analysis, I veered leftward more often than I would have guessed.
- Balanced/Unbiased: 20.40 percent
- Liberal and liberal-leaning: 45.27 percent
- Conservative and conservative-leaning: 34.33 percent
Why is this? Well again, there are two reasons: (1) good old confirmation bias, and (2) The Atlantic, which is sort of wickedly difficult to classify.
On (1): there’s not much to say. Confirmation bias is real, and as I mentioned before, it’s just really, really tough to completely eradicate. It took me some time to map and grow accustomed to the ecosystem of conservative publications and websites, but for a long while I relied mostly on The National Review and The American Conservative (these two provided a full 68 percent of all sourcing for conservative commentary/analysis). Moving forward, having a source list will do much to resolve this issue.
On (2): I personally consider The Atlantic about as centrist as centrist gets. Much of their analysis is well-reasoned and even-handed – it’s for this reason I linked to their work a full 10.95 percent of the time. They employ, in addition to rock-star progressive writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, some notable conservative writers, like David Frum, a former speechwriter for G.W. Bush. The issue, and the reason I could not in good conscience label them Balanced/Unbiased, is that the editors endorsed Hillary Clinton for president during the 2016 campaign – just the third time, in fact, that they ever gave an endorsement (the first two were Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson). Had they not done this, I would likely have dropped The Atlantic into the neutral bucket. Doing so would have meant the liberal/liberal-leaning percentage was exactly the same as the conservative/conservative-leaning. Oh well.
The House Intelligence Committee voted along partisan lines to release the disputed memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and other Republican members detailing what they say are “surveillance abuses by the FBI and the Justice Department in the early stages of the investigation into potential ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.”
- The FBI released a curt statement Wednesday, saying it had “grave concerns” about the memo’s accuracy.
- The memo, released on Friday, claims the Steele dossier “formed an essential part” of the FISA application submitted by the FBI to receive the warrant necessary to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, an advisor of the Trump campaign.
- The memo also claims, in bolded language, that Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
- Trump tweeted on Saturday that he was vindicated by the memo, using quotes around his own name for some unknown reason.
- Some context: Nunes has clashed with the intelligence community before. Last April, he recused himself from the committee’s Russia investigation “amid an ethics investigation into whether he had improperly disclosed classified information.” For more on Nunes’s “loopy” and “bizarre” behavior (according to a fellow committee member) back in March, take a look at our coverage.
- It’s also worth noting that, by his own admission, Devin Nunes “hadn’t read the FISA documents that made up the basis of the memo.” You can watch the interview here.
- On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee voted unanimously to release the Democratic rebuttal, giving Trump a few days to mull over whether he will allow its release.
You can read the full memo here.
President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, using a conciliatory tone but offering little that was new or bipartisan, in terms of policy. You can watch the full video here.
The Trump administration is declining to enforce sanctions against Russia that passed Congress nearly unanimously last year.
Andrew McCabe stepped down as Deputy FBI Director last Monday, leaving just weeks ahead of a planned early retirement.
- McCabe told friends “he felt pressure from the head of the bureau to leave,” according to the New York Times.
- The Justice Department’s inspector general is looking into McCabe’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, “probing whether [he] slowed the bureau’s response after he was alerted to a new batch of emails…in early October.”
Amazon, BerkshireHathaway, and JPMorgan announced last Tuesday that they’re partnering to create a new company “aimed at reining in health-care costs for their U.S. employees.”
Tom Shannon, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs – the third-ranking official at the State Department – announced his retirement on Thursday.
- Shannon’s retirement, which he says is for personal reasons, contributes to the ongoing hollowing out of the State Dept. From the AP: “Of five career ambassadors on the job when [Sec. of State Rex Tillerson] arrived…only one remains and that diplomat is currently on sabbatical. Of six undersecretary positions, only two, including Shannon’s, are currently occupied. The rest are vacant.”
The Justice Department filed a court brief on Friday saying Paul Manafort’s civil lawsuit against Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be dismissed.
- In the brief, some of the DOJ’s strongest language yet backing Mueller’s investigation: “The Special Counsel’s investigation and prosecutions are entirely lawful.”
Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) resigned on Wednesday after reports that she “bought shares in a tobacco company one month into her leadership of the agency charged with reducing tobacco use.”