A lot can be missed when media outlets supplant data with spin, implication or other forms of distortion. We analyzed four articles covering the temporary successor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) directorship. With two competing appointments (each supported by a different law), the situation is a first for the agency. But the media’s drama and distortion don’t add much in terms of informing us about the situation. Here are three takeaways from this coverage.
1. Spin: Them’s fightin’ words!
These outlets portrayed the competing appointments as a fight. The Washington Post, for example, called the situation a “fight,” “showdown,” “tug-of-war” and a “high-stakes battle.” The New York Times in turn used terms like “clash,” “aggressive” and “significant blow.” This is similar to The Knife’s Mayweather-Trump analysis, in which we compared articles covering the Mayweather-McGregor fight against those covering the Trump-McConnell tweets — you’ll never guess which set was more distorted.
Takeaway: Sensational language (spin) might entertain, but it does little to inform.
2. Implication: Team Cordray vs. Team Trump
The Post and the Times suggested the CFPB is a good agency, that related complaints from “conservatives” are somehow invalid, and that President Trump’s pick to run the agency would be bad. For instance, the Times wrote, “Installing Mr. Mulvaney, a fiscal hawk who previously called the agency a ‘sick, sad’ joke, as the agency’s interim leader would immediately alter the consumer bureau’s focus.” A change in leadership by Trump may change the agency’s focus (as has occurred with other agencies undergoing similar changes). But precisely how the “fiscal hawk” would “immediately alter” the bureau is something the Times didn’t explain. The language leaves a negative impression nonetheless.
Fox News and The Daily Caller imply the opposite. Fox News, for example, devoted its headline and the first half of its article to Trump’s and others’ criticisms of the CFPB. Only halfway through do you learn that Cordray, the agency’s outgoing director, has as much legal basis as Trump to name a successor, but by that time you may already be biased in favor of Trump’s pick. The Daily Caller took this one step further, by devoting most of its article to criticisms, and omitting the agency’s provisions to appoint a successor, which portrays Trump’s position as right.
Takeaway: Some outlets have a “conservative” bias, while other have a “liberal” bias. Both are incomplete, because they only show one side of the issue.
3. Missing data: What does the CFPB do again?
The Post, the Times and Fox News provided a general description of what the CFPB does (The Daily Caller did not), and the first two outlets also cited an example of two recent CFPB actions, but that’s it. The outlets don’t provide further data that could elucidate the agency’s significance, as well as its possible shortcomings. For more on missing data, click here.
Takeaway: Without understanding more specifically what the agency does, and where it may currently fail, it’s difficult to assess what a change in leadership would mean.
Given there is no legal precedent for this situation, it’s possible the matter may need to be resolved in court. This is a point the four articles make, but the distortions mentioned above have the same downside: they can move us to view the situation as a problem, without really understanding why it may or may not be.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News