Belmont Club

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

What does the truth look like before it’s revealed? Well, what patterns are you prepared to see? Rachel Maddow confidently told the public how Anthony Weiner was victimized by the vast great right-wing conspiracy — only days before the congressman explained that he’d lied to everyone, including the press.

There are a number of reasons why news analysts can get things wrong. Here are some reasons why Ms. Maddow may have been off-base:

  1. The subordination of analysis to ideology.  Where a given framework admits of only one conclusion, no other conclusion, no matter how obvious, can be arrived at.  Maddow may have wanted to believe Weiner was a knight in shining armor and Andrew Breitbart was the devil incarnate, so she adopted an approach which produced that result.
  2. Mis-estimation of the factors governing a situation. Maddow may have thought that rudimentary image manipulation skills and not corrupting network logs were the governing factor in successful hoaxing.
  3. Mirror imaging. Maddow may have been familiar with what she might have done in a similar situation had the shoe been on the other foot and the object of the scandal a Republican. Therefore it was easy to assume that other people would behave in the same way.
  4. Lack of information. Her fact base was scanty. In reality, the absence of facts should have led her to say, “We don’t know what happened.” Of all the defects of her analysis, the absence of facts was the most fatal.

Interestingly, the same factors apply on a meta scale to her audience. Maddow is unlikely to lose as many viewers as one would think. First, her audience may subordinate analysis to ideology. Never mind if Rachel gets it wrong. She tells them what they want to hear, so they’ll keep listening. Mirror-imaging plays a part too. Her audience may presume that other audiences are similarly insensitive to facts and conclude that opinions are entirely independent of reality. Finally, her audience has no ready number to measure just how badly their oracle is getting things wrong.  They may assume that other analysts are wrong just as often.

In sum, her ratings may not suffer from her mistake.

Far more interesting is the question of how many journalists were surprised by Weiner’s ultimate admission. Unlike Maddow, many journalists, including the politically liberal, were not surprised at all. They had gradually become skeptical of Weiner’s innocence as the days passed because they could recognize the fluttering of a politician in trouble.  It was Weiner’s bizarre response that led them to suspect the truth. When the moment of confession came it did not come as total shock to everyone except the true believers.

Those journalists were cumulating the facts. Whatever their political inclinations were, these had not yet completely overwhelmed their logical faculties. Whether they were willing to admit it or not, they knew which way the story was tending.

The one person who had more facts than anyone else except Weiner was Andrew Breitbart — and he used it to great advantage. He selectively timed the release of information in his possession in order to force his opponent into terrible dilemmas.  His Big Government site provided a Chinese water torture of gradual disclosure, each more tantalizing than the last. The problem Weiner’s defenders faced was simple: how much did Breitbart ultimately know?  When it became clear that Breitbart knew enough to show that the tweets had been sent by Weiner, then the confession was forced to create a stop line.

Weiner held a defense line until it was obvious that Breitbart could flank him. Then he fell back to the next position.  The trouble is, Breitbart may not yet be done. But that’s for Andrew to know and for Anthony to find out.

While the person with the most complete knowledge of the actual truth is Anthony Weiner, now that he has shown himself vulnerable to Breitbart his political supporters will secretly demand to know what the full extent of his position is. What they cannot afford is to throw their reputations behind Weiner only to have Breitbart saw a hole out from under their feet. Ultimately it’s OK for Weiner to go down, as long as they don’t go down with him. Such is the chivalrous code of partisan politics. In the last analysis, the management of fiction, at least to those without a fanatical audience who’ll believe anything they say, depends paradoxically on a firm command of the facts. To successfully lie, you must know the actual truth. For Andrew Breitbart, the problem is slightly different. To get at the truth, he must hold something back. Has the saga ended? It all depends on whether Anthony Weiner has been frank.

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