Wednesday, December 7, 2022

NYT, WSJ Look to Hawks for Ukraine Expertise


A crucial function of a free press is to present perspectives that critically examine government actions. In major articles from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal discussing the escalation of the war in Ukraine, however, such perspectives have been hard to come by—even as the stakes have reached as high as nuclear war.

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated the war by announcing a mobilization of up to 300,000 extra troops (CNBC9/21/22) and threatened to use “all the means at our disposal” to ensure “the territorial integrity of our motherland” (CNBC9/23/22). A month later, a letter endorsed by 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was sent to the White House (and quickly retracted), urging a “proactive diplomatic push” to reach a ceasefire in the war.

Both of these major incidents could have been an opportunity for the media to ask important questions about US policy in Ukraine, which is—according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (Wall Street Journal4/25/22)—to “weaken” Russia. Instead, elite newspapers continue to offer a very narrow range of expert opinion on a US strategy that favors endless war.

Assessing the threat

NYT: U.S. and Allies Condemn Putin’s Troop Mobilization and Nuclear Threats

Aside from Vladimir Putin, this New York Times article (9/21/22) is entirely sourced to “American and other Western officials,” “White House and Pentagon officials,” “Western officials,” the Pentagon press secretary, the British military secretary, President Biden “and other administration officials,” “current and former US military officials,” a National Security Council spokesperson, the director of Russia studies at the Pentagon-funded Center for Naval Analyses, “a former top US Army commander in Europe,” “experts,” a Russian military specialist (and former Marine) at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “American officials and analysts,” “a former supreme allied commander for Europe,” “US intelligence and other security officials,” “officials,” “a senior State Department official” and the head of the US Strategic Command.

In the two days following Putin’s threats, the New York Times published three pieces assessing them. Of these pieces, expert analysis and commentary was provided by “military analysts” and a “director of Russia studies at the CNA defense research” (9/21/22),  a “French author” and “a former French ambassador to Russia” (9/21/22), and several current and former government officials (9/21/22).

In these articles, probably the most critical comment was provided by nameless “Western officials” who have “expressed concern that if Mr. Putin felt cornered, he might detonate a tactical nuclear weapon”—though the Times immediately reassured that “they said there was no evidence that he was moving those weapons, or preparing such a strike.” None of the officials or analysts that the Times referenced in these articles explicitly advocated for changing US policy.

In the same timeframe, the Wall Street Journal ran six articles assessing Putin’s actions, and did not find any space in these articles to criticize US policy.

Russian public opinion of the war was cited in one piece (9/21/22): 

Public interest in the invasion was initially high in February but has been declining steadily—especially among young people, who would presumably be those asked to serve in the fighting, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center earlier this month. Younger people were also far more likely to favor peace negotiations, the poll results said.

Strangely, the Journal did not cite US public opinion on peace negotiations in any of its coverage. A poll commissioned by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (9/27/22) found most American likely voters supported the US engaging in peace negotiations. Supporting this, an IPSOS poll has reported that most Americans support the US continuing  “its diplomatic efforts with Russia” (10/6/22).  I did not find a single Journal article that mentioned the Quincy Institute or IPSOS polls. The Journal has done its own polling on American opinion regarding the war (e.g., 11/3/223/11/22); it does not ask for opinions about diplomacy as a strategy.

The Quincy and IPSOS polls are in line with Americans’ attitudes from a Gallup poll taken prior to the war, which found 73% of Americans “say that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace” (12/17/19). It seems Americans generally favor diplomacy. A more recent Gallup poll (9/15/22) did not ask about Americans’ support for diplomacy, but whether the US was “doing enough,” which is a vague question that obfuscates whether it refers to military, diplomatic support, or other means. It also asked a question that presented only two approaches for the US to take toward conflict: “support Ukraine in reclaiming territory, even if prolonged conflict” or “end conflict quickly, even if allow Russia to keep territory.” Other diplomatic options, such as those regarding NATO’s ever-expanding footprint in Eastern Europe, were not offered.

Favoring hawkish perspectives

Intercept: House Progressives Float Diplomatic Path Toward Ending War in Ukraine, Get Annihilated, Quickly “Clarify”

Part of the reason it was so easy to make progressives back away from their pro-diplomacy letter (Intercept10/25/22) is that the views behind the letter rarely appear in major media.

The October letter calling on the White House to consider a diplomatic end to the war was signed by 30 members of Congress and endorsed by a number of nonprofit groups, including the Quincy Institute (Intercept10/25/22).

To get a sense of how much tolerance there has been for dissenting expertise on the White House’s stance in the Ukraine war, I searched the Nexis news database for mentions of the Quincy Institute. As a Washington think tank backed by major establishment funders spanning the political spectrum, including both George Soros and Charles Koch (Boston Globe6/30/19), journalists should have little reservation in soliciting comments from experts associated with it.

In a Nexis search as of November 9, the Quincy Institute was mentioned nine times in the New York Times since February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine; five of these were in opinion pieces. Of the four reported pieces, two (7/3/229/27/22) included quotes from members of the Institute that were critical of US military strategy in Ukraine.

On the website of the Wall Street Journal, which is not fully indexed on Nexis, I turned up a single mention of the Quincy Institute in connection with Ukraine, in a piece (3/23/22) on Ukrainian lobbyists’ influence in the US.

Pro-war bias

NYT: NYT Exposes a Favorite Source as War Industry Flack

Despite exposés that show CSIS literally functions as a PR organ for the weapons industry (Extra!10/16), the think continues to be a favorite source of establishment media.

That lack of coverage is all the more stark in comparison to a hawkish think tank. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), heavily funded by the US governmentarms dealers and oil companies, is a consistently pro-war think tank: A FAIR investigation (Extra!10/16) of a year’s worth of CSIS op-eds and quotes in the New York Times failed to find any instance of the CSIS advocating for curtailment of US military policy.

At the Journal, a search for “Center for Strategic and International Studies” in Ukraine stories from February 24 to November 9 yielded 34 results. Four of these results were opinion pieces. For news articles, that’s a 30:1 ratio of the hawkish think tank to the dovish think tank.

In the same time period, CSIS appeared in the Times 44 times, according to a Nexis search, including five opinion pieces—a news ratio of just under 10:1.

It should be noted that, just as Quincy sources weren’t always quoted offering criticism of US Ukraine policy, affiliates of CSIS weren’t always advocating for an unrestrained stance in Ukraine. One even warned that “the risk of a widening war is serious right now” (New York Times4/27/22). But repeatedly reaching out to and publishing quotes from a well-known pro-war think tank will inevitably produce less critical reporting of a war than turning to the most prominent anti-war think tank in Washington.

And it’s not that these papers are seeking out “balance” from sources other than Quincy. Seven other nonprofit groups also endorsed the October letter; the New York Times has quoted a representative from one of those groups—Just Foreign Policy—exactly once (3/7/22) since the war began. The Journal has cited none. But considering the stakes at hand, reporters have a responsibility to seek out and publish such critical perspectives in their coverage of Ukraine.

Photo Credit: Neon Tommy

Originally published on FAIR.org, December 2, 2022. Reprinted with permission.     

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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Walker-Warnock U.S. Senate race in Georgia most expensive in 2022 cycle as runoff intensifies

By Taylor Giorno 
November 30, 2022 

The U.S. Senate race in Georgia is the most expensive contest of the 2022 cycle, according to OpenSecrets data, with spending by general election candidates and outside groups skyrocketing to $380.7 million as of Nov. 29.

Money is still pouring into the Senate race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican nominee Herschel Walker. The Georgia contest advanced to a runoff when neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote on election day. 

Both of the U.S. Senate races in Georgia, which advanced to a January runoff, were also the most expensive of the election 2020 cycle. More than $513.9 million poured into the most expensive race in which now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D–Ga.) unseated incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R–Ga.). 

The runoff election is happening one month earlier this cycle, on Dec. 6. Early voting started on Monday – and earlier in some counties – and will end on Friday, Dec. 2. On Monday, voters set the state’s record for the most ballots cast in one day of early voting.

Warnock has raised more money than any other federal candidate this election cycle, according to OpenSecrets data. Warnock’s campaign reported raising $150.5 million through Nov. 16, according to pre-runoff filings with the Federal Election Commission, three times the $58.3 million Walker’s campaign reported raising through the same period. Warnock also reported three times as much cash on hand – $29.7 million – heading into the final weeks of the runoff election.

From Oct. 20 through Nov. 16, Warnock raised twice as much money as Walker. The incumbent Democrat reported raising $51.9 million, while his GOP challenger reported raising $20.8 million.

Unlike in 2020, Democratic control of the U.S. Senate is no longer in question, but Warnock’s reelection bid is already more expensive than his special election bid last election cycle. During the 2020 election cycle, outside groups poured $184.5 million into the special election between Warnock and incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who spent a combined $222 million.

Outside spending is also on track to blow past the inflation-adjusted $210.2 million spent by outside groups in the Warnock-Loeffler contest during the entire 2020 cycle, even with the shortened runoff timeline.

Outside groups have poured about $60 million into Georgia Senate runoff since Election Day

Outside groups have spent about $60 million to sway voters for or against their preferred candidate in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff. That’s more than one-third of the $146.3 million outside groups spent on the race on or before the 2022 general election day on Nov. 8. 

The biggest spenders are super PACs aligned with Democratic and Republican Senate leadership. The National Rifle Association has also spent big in the runoff compared to the group’s anemic spending during the general election, and two pro-Warnock “pop-up” super PACs have already dropped nearly $2.3 million into the runoff.

Georgia Honor, a super PAC funded by the Senate Majority PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.), has spent nearly $52.5 million boosting Warnock and opposing Walker in the U.S. Senate race. More than $14 million has come in the three weeks since election day. 

The vast majority of that has gone to attacking Walker, with one ad calling the GOP nominee “unfit for office” and pointing to his “long record of violence toward women.” Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, told CNN in 2008 that he held a razor to her throat and once, a gun to her temple, threatening to pull the trigger.

Walker told Axios he was “accountable” for violent acts he committed against his ex-wife in December. He has spoken openly about his mental health challenges, even writing a book about his struggles with dissociative identity disorder stemming from childhood trauma. Experts told the New York Times that the disorder does not cause violent behavior.

The other top spender is the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.). Senate Leadership Fund has poured $15.3 million into the Georgia runoff, bringing their total 2022 investment in the race up to $53.7 million.

A new Senate Leadership Fund attack ad criticizes Warnock and President Joe Biden for “reckless spending” that “keeps driving up inflation,” CNN reported. The ad also claims “a low income apartment building tied to Senator Raphael Warnock is filing eviction notices against residents.” 

Walker alleged Ebenezer Baptist Church and Warnock, the church’s senior pastor, were attempting to evict Columbia Tower residents in October, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Warnock has denied the allegations, calling the attacks “vicious and venomous.”

The super PAC arm of the National Rifle Association – which spent just $639,000 boosting Walker and opposing Warnock during the general election – has spent more than $2.1 million supporting the GOP nominee and $1 million attacking the Democratic incumbent in the runoff. 

The NRA Political Victory Fund awarded Warnock an “F” rating, urging voters to “Defend Freedom. Defeat Raphael Warnock.”

One pro-Warnock “pop-up” super PAC, Worker Power PAC for Georgia, put $1.8 million into field canvassing payroll and expenses on Nov. 15, the same day after it filed a statement of organization with the FEC. 

“Pop-up” super PACs form right before an election so they can spend big now and disclose later, leaving voters in the dark about who is seeking to influence their vote. Worker Power PAC for Georgia’s pre-runoff report covering the period through Nov. 16 does not disclose any donors or expenditures, but instead reports the $1.8 million as a debt and obligation.

Another “pop-up” super PAC, Relay, spent $500,000 on “voter outreach and turnout” supporting Warnock on Nov. 27, the day before early voting started in Georgia. Relay filed a statement of organization with the FEC on Nov. 13 and did not disclose any donors in its pre-runoff report.

Originally published on November 30th, 2022 on OpenSecrets.org.  

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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Media Misled on Issues Important to Midterm Voters

November 23, 2022

“The political press blew it.” So wrote Dana Milbank of the Washington Post (11/9/22), calling the fourth estate the “biggest loser of the midterm elections.” As he points out, most of the headlines leading into Election Day forecast a “Democratic wipeout.” And, it hardly bears mentioning, such a Democratic rout didn’t occur.

Looking at where the prognosticators went wrong, a common theme is an emphasis on the wrong campaign issues. A pre-election article in Politico (10/19/22), which purported to explain the “GOP’s midterm momentum,” encapsulated many pundits’ predictions about the House contest: 

Twenty days out from Election Day, voters are overwhelmingly focused on the economy and inflation, Republicans are more trusted to handle those issues, and crime beats out abortion as a second-tier issue.

This view was also reflected in Fox’s final “Power Rankings” (11/1/22) that predicted “Republicans to take control of the House with a 19-seat majority, or 236 total seats.” Actually, if Republicans had won 236 seats, that would leave the Democrats with 199—giving the GOP a majority of 37 seats, not 19.  But why so bullish in the first place? “Republicans are winning on the economy and crime, and that translates into a decisive House majority.”

And Blake Hounshell argued in the New York Times (10/19/22) that the election was breaking in favor of Republicans for three reasons: the importance of inflation and crime, the relative unimportance of abortion, and the historical pattern of midterm elections that tend to be a referendum on the party of the president.

All these claims, of course, turned out to be wrong.

Mismeasuring issues

Fox: Fox News Power Rankings: Republicans expected to control House, but both parties hold on to pathways in Senate

Fox (11/1/22) greatly overestimated the size of the GOP House majority because it underestimated the importance of Democratic-leaning issues.

Measuring the importance of issues to voters is fraught with ambiguity. There is no single method for identifying such issues, and thus polls find different and often conflicting results.

Prior to the election, for example, a poll by Fox (11/1/22) reported that 89% of voters were “extremely” or “very concerned” about inflation, 79% about crime, 74% political divisions, 73% Russia/Ukraine, 72% what is taught in schools, and 71% abortion.

That form of the question allows respondents to give their opinions on all the issues picked by the pollsters. Fox interpreted the results to mean that only the top two “concerning” issues—inflation (89%) and crime (79%)—would have any significant impact on the outcome. What to make of the fact that three other issues were “concerning” to more than seven in ten voters? That’s hardly a trivial number. Yet the other issues were completely dismissed.

Another way to ask the question is to require respondents to identify just one issue that is most important to them. But even then, different polls find different results.

A prime example can be found by comparing the two 2022 Election Day polls: the network exit poll and AP/Fox Votecast.

The former asked respondents to indicate which one issue was most important to their vote.

As the table shows, 31% of voters chose inflation, and among that group, 28% voted for a Democratic member of Congress, 71% for a Republican—for a net GOP advantage of 43 percentage points. Another 27% chose abortion, which favored Democrats by a 53-point margin.

The Votecast poll of 2022 voters also asked respondents to specify just one issue, though the question was phrased somewhat differently, asking for the most important issue facing the country. The question also included four additional items.

Note that the five issues listed by the network exit poll are virtually the same as the first five issues of Votecast. The only difference is how each characterized the economy—“inflation” and “economy and jobs” respectively.

Yet that difference in wording, as well as the number of issues, produced startlingly different results. Almost half (48%) of Votecast respondents chose “economy and job,” while only 31% of exit poll respondents chose inflation. Also, Votecast shows just 10% choosing abortion as the most important issue, while the network exit poll reported 27% listing abortion most important.

In short, according to Votecast, the economy and jobs issue overwhelmed abortion, while the exit poll suggested inflation was only marginally more important to voters than abortion.

Other significant differences can be found as well. Both polls show about 9% to 10% of voters listing immigration as most important. But Votecast says the issue favors Republicans by a 78-point margin, while the network exit poll says only a 48-point margin. Such differences among polls are typical.

Also, it’s worth noting that climate change tied for third place in Votecast, but was overlooked in the exit polls. This difference illustrates how subjective and arbitrary are the choices that pollsters make in determining which issues to examine.

Partisan differences on issues

In the previous analyses, little effort was made to differentiate the top issues of Democrats, Republicans and independents. But any attempt to understand the electorate requires such a differentiation.

CNN: The central tension driving the 2022 election

Richard Brownstein (CNN, 10/11/22) argued the 2022 midterms boiled down to the issues of “your money or your rights?”

In his analysis of “the central tension driving the ’22 election,” Ronald Brownstein (CNN, 10/11/22) emphasized that Democrats and Republicans were focused on quite different issues. He cited Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster: “The blue team cares about abortion and democracy, and the red team cares about crime and immigration and inflation.”

Brownstein went on to write: 

The national NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released last week offered the latest snapshot of this divergence. Asked what issue they considered most important in 2022, Republicans overwhelmingly chose inflation (52%) and immigration (18%).

A comparable share of Democrats picked preserving democracy (32%), abortion (21%) and healthcare (15%).

Independents split exactly in half between the priorities of the two parties: inflation and immigration on the one side, and democracy, abortion and healthcare on the other.

The important and obvious, but often overlooked, point is that different voters are motivated by different issues. To note, for example, that abortion is a motivating issue for only 12% of the overall electorate overlooks the possibility that it may be a crucial motivating issue for Democrats (21% chose this issue) to turn out, and perhaps for independents to choose one party or the other.

Fundamentally flawed concept

Apart from the inconsistency in poll results, the notion that national polls can identify the issues that will determine which party will win control of the House is fundamentally flawed.

The assumption behind the previous analyses is that most voters choose candidates based on the issues. But that is backward for the vast majority of voters. People who identify with a party will overwhelmingly vote for that party, regardless of the issues.

Both Votecast and the network exit poll, for example, report that only 5% to 6% of party identifiers voted for a candidate not of their own party.

Pollsters may ask respondents to identify the important issues for them in this election, but the question is irrelevant for most Republicans and Democrats. They will choose among issues suggested by the poll interviewers. But the issues they choose will almost always be the issues that conform to what their party leaders are already stressing.

To put it graphically, for most voters PARTY —> ISSUES, not the reverse.

Of course, at some point in most voters’ lives, they will probably choose a party that best reflects their political values—or that their parents, or spouse, or other loved one prefers, or that appeals to them for some other miscellaneous reason.

But, in any given election, most voters have already decided which party they prefer, and will simply vote for their party.

That’s one reason why national polls on issues don’t explain why an election was won or lost. The identification of issues is irrelevant—except for a narrow slice of the electorate, which includes small percentages of swing voters, and of occasional voters who are indeed motivated by issues. And it’s this group that will provide the deciding votes.

These are the “persuadables”—voters who might be expected to vote for their own party and don’t; or independents who are persuaded to choose a Democrat or Republican this time, though they might change in the next election; or infrequent voters who decide to turn out in this election because of a particular issue or set of issues.

Motivating a tiny slice

Washington Post chart comparing turnout in midterm and presidential elections

As the Washington Post (12/31/18) pointed out, turnout in the 2018 midterms was the highest in 50 years—following 2014, which was the lowest in 70 years. (2022 turnout is expected to be about 46%—closer to 2018 than to 2014.)

How narrow is this slice? The short answer: About 10% to 15% of voters could be considered “persuadable.”

Votecast reported that in the 2022 election, the number of independents (who don’t lean to either party) was 8%. Add to this party identifiers who switched their allegiance (representing about 4% of the whole electorate). And add to that an unknown (but probably small) number of occasional voters who turned out this time but not some other time, and the total could be as high as 15%.

The number could be even higher in a wave election. Turnout in the 2018 midterms, for example, was the highest in 50 years. This suggests an unusually high number of occasional voters (and “new” voters who had reached voting age in the previous four years) were persuaded to turn out, because of “issues” or some other factor. But it’s impossible for pollsters to predict how large the turnout in any given election will actually be.

Another complication, specifically for the congressional contests, is that only persuadable voters in competitive districts can make a difference. 538 estimates that 124 congressional seats were competitive this year, or 28.5% of the total—45 that leaned Democratic, 39 Republican, and 40 “highly competitive” seats that leaned in neither direction. What these numbers mean is that only about 4% to 5% of the national electorate (15% of 28.5%) are in a position to determine the outcome of the House contest. Even if it were a wave election with, say, 25% of the voters in the persuadable category, that still means that only 7% to 8% of the electorate would be casting the decisive votes.

Pollsters simply can’t tease out such a small proportion of the respondents in their sample to see what motivates them to vote.

Traditionally, pollsters present their data as I summarized their findings earlier in this article: How many voters overall prefer each issue, and how do respondents who prefer a given issue actually vote?

Clearly, that didn’t work in this election. And there is no reason to be confident it will work in any other given election.

Post-election issue importance

The post-election period is more amenable to analysis of issues. By then we know the actual vote totals, and can compare which districts over- and under-performed with respect to party distribution, and how they compared with other districts and with the national vote. From those comparisons, it is possible to infer which issues might have been decisive.

One example is abortion. Just four days before the election, an article in the New York Times (11/4/22) carried the headline: “At Campaign’s End, Democrats See Limits of Focus on Abortion.” Too few people overall cited abortion as a crucial issue.

Bulwark: The Data Have Spoken: Abortion Was a Decisive Issue in the 2022 Midterms

William Saletan (Bulwark11/11/22): “Dobbs didn’t just influence which candidates people voted for. It also influenced whether they showed up at the polls at all—and this provided a crucial boost to pro-choice candidates.”

After the election, William Saletan of the Bulwark (11/11/22) reviewed both the network exit poll and Votecast, and concluded that in fact, “Abortion was a decisive issue in the 2022 midterms.” In enough districts, it affected a small but significant number of voters in both their decision to vote and who to vote for.

Another example: Looking at the pattern of voting across all congressional districts and in the crucial Senate elections, Nate Cohn of the New York Times (11/16/22) concluded that, on average, Trump-endorsed candidates under-performed non-MAGA candidates by an average of about 5 percentage points. Although not mentioned as a typical “issue,” it would appear that the former president was nevertheless a significant influence on the election.

No doubt, similar analyses can address the relative importance of other issues. Analyzing what happened, based on actual data, is much more insightful than predicting what might happen.

The real problem with the 2022 news coverage, however, is not that it was off target, but rather, as Julie Hollar noted previously on this site (11/10/22), “prognostication-as-reporting is utterly dysfunctional.” Judd Legum (Popular Information11/10/22) likewise argues that the political media is “broken”: 

Even if media predictions were correct, they represent a style of political reporting that is dysfunctional. Campaign coverage is increasingly focused on anticipating who will win through polling analysis. But politics is unpredictable, and polls are not nearly precise enough to predict the outcome of a close contest.

That’s a lesson we relearn each election.


Reprinted with permission from FAIR.org.    

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