Did President Donald Trump inadvertently confess to obstruction of justice in a single tweet? Given the difficulty of proving such a crime, the answer is probably not a straightforward, definitive, “Yes.” But AP, The Washington Post and The Guardian seem to suggest otherwise. (Why is Fox News not in this list? See the footnote.)
These articles suggest the tweet provided undeniable incriminating evidence of obstruction of justice. To be fair, there were some legal experts that more-or-less said as much and it’s possible Trump’s actions, statements and tweets could lead to an obstruction charge. Trump may have obstructed justice; we’ll leave that for the experts and justice system to decide. Yet the bias and generalizations in the media coverage misleadingly portray Trump’s tweet as a clear-cut case of obstruction of justice, thereby losing all the nuance that often accompanies legal matters like this.
Our ratings show evidence for the bias mentioned above. AP, The Guardian and The Post were 80, 79 and 75 percent slanted, respectively (the higher the rating, the more biased the article). Here’s how the articles slant and distort information.
1. Cherry-picking expert quotes
Cherry-picking is when you select evidence that suits your conclusion and you leave out information that may counter it. In this case, AP, The Post and The Guardian exclusively include expert opinions that seem to leave little doubt as to whether Trump has obstructed justice.
Here’s an example from The Guardian:
“That’s a confession of deliberate, corrupt obstruction of justice,” said Laurence Tribe, a professor in constitutional law at Harvard University.
All three articles contain different excerpts of this quote from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee:
“What we’re beginning to see is the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice. I think we see this in indictments … and some of the comments that are being made. I see it in the hyper-frenetic attitude of the White House, the comments every day, the continual tweets. And I see it most importantly in what happened with the firing of Director Comey, and it is my belief that that is directly because [Comey] did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation. That’s obstruction of justice.”
What might an alternative view look like? It doesn’t necessarily have to be the polar opposite of the above quotes. Sometimes an alternative view is one that offers a more nuanced perspective, like this one from Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck, cited by the Toronto Star:
“I don’t think the tweet, profoundly misguided though it may have been, is itself proof of obstruction of justice. But, it may very well establish the timeline of what Trump knew when, which would be a necessary part of any obstruction charge. So it’s not quite a smoking gun, but it certainly doesn’t do the president any favours.”
See the difference?
2. Vagueness and Generalizations
Here, the articles offer generalizations and vague assertions that suggest an obstruction charge is becoming increasingly likely, though few specifics are provided.
Here are two examples:
The Guardian (lead sentence)
“Donald Trump is increasingly vulnerable to charges of obstructing justice…according to legal experts and senior Democrats.”
How many experts and Democrats are we talking about? Just the ones quoted in the articles, or more? And what does “increasingly vulnerable” mean, exactly? Has the likelihood of an obstruction charge increased? By how much and how might this be measured? What was the likelihood before Trump’s tweets over the weekend?
The Washington Post
“Flynn’s decision to cooperate with Mueller was widely seen as a sign of increasing legal peril for other White House aides and perhaps Trump himself …”
“Widely seen as” suggests it’s generally accepted that Flynn’s cooperation with the investigation is a “sign of increasing legal peril” for Trump’s administration, and maybe Trump himself. Is this necessarily true? Do most people hold this view? Based on what information?
Even if it is a “widely” held view, due process doesn’t deal with people’s opinions of Trump’s legal standing. It deals with examining evidence and proving someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and otherwise presuming innocence.
Why does this matter?
In his book “A Field Guide to Lies, Critical Thinking in the Information Age,” Daniel J. Levitin says, “There are always alternative explanations; our job is to weigh them against the one(s) offered and determine whether the person drawing the conclusion has drawn the most obvious or likely one.” It’s pretty hard to do this when articles a) present mostly one explanation — Trump likely or definitely obstructed justice — and b) lack the information necessary to evaluate its likelihood, such as the legal criteria for deciding whether there has been an obstruction of justice (see Context for more information).
Presenting Trump’s tweets as a black-and-white case of obstruction of justice is more likely to promote partisanship and divisiveness than critical thinking. And considering an obstruction charge could lead to impeachment, wouldn’t it be responsible to promote critical thinking, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on? We think so.
But what’s ironic is how the bias and generalizations in AP, The Post and The Guardian potentially undermine the justice system itself — something Trump has been accused of doing. By suggesting Trump likely obstructed justice before Mueller’s investigation has concluded, the media effectively circumvents due process. Trump to date has not been charged or convicted. This may change but until there’s a guilty verdict, the justice system presumes innocence, a standard the media doesn’t always follow.
Written by Shane Mottishaw
Edited by Shane Mottishaw, Jens Erik Gould and Rosa Laura Junco
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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