The Appeal to Emotions, Not Facts

by Lyle Harris Sr.

This section is devoted to studying the local impacts of specific issues the Trump Administration or Republican Congress will propose.

For an historical reflection on today’s Trump-GOP dominance, David Brooks, a conservative (of the old school) political writer, focused on the Nobel Prize author Thomas Mann, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 and came to America where he lectured widely on the meaning of democracy. Brooks said Mann’s “great contribution is to remind us that democracy is not just about politics; it’s about the individual’s daily struggle to be better and nobler and to resist the cheap and the superficial.”

Artwork by Hilary Cole

E.J. Dionne Jr., a prominent opinion writer for The Washington Post and NPR, recently emphasized, “Great nations and proud democracies fall when their systems become so corrupted that the decay is not even noticed — or the rot is written off as a normal part of politics.” President Trump and his party, he continued, have created such a crisis by “attacks on truth, decency and democratic values.” Trump’s supporters are pushing “outlandish policies on taxes and health care” and “lauding Trump’s executive orders that scuttle regulations safeguarding consumers, workers and the environment.”

The New York Times recently reported that Trump made 103 falsehoods in the first 10 months of his presidency. And Trump’s lies grow daily. Anything he doesn’t like he calls “fake news.” Steve Coll, writing in The New Yorker, reported that Trump “complicates the matter by issuing demonstrably false statements of his own, which, inevitably, make news. Trump has brought to the White House bully pulpit a disorienting habit of telling lies, big and small, without evident shame.”

Coll wrote that “since 2015, Politifact has counted 329 public statements by Trump that it judges to be mostly or entirely false. (In comparison, its count of such misstatements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is thirteen.)”

Trump’s tweets, Coll said, can do much harm, as when a Libyan broadcaster cited one of his tweets about CNN: “When the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks … to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.”

Common Values
Coll continued, “… publishers and advertisers prize readers who are deeply engaged, not just clicking around sites. News organizations as distinct as the Times and Breitbart now think of their audiences as communities in formation, bound by common values.”

At the same time, it is vital for readers and listeners to know the difference between “fact-driven, truth-seeking, fair-minded reporting” and opinion passed off as fact, as is Fox’s Sean Hannity’s wont. Quality reporting is based on a system of openness of sources, reliability of findings and a focus on critical information for the public. And when errors occur, the responsible press corrects them.

In the past few months CNN, ABC News, Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations have corrected mistakes and, in some cases, punished reporters for failures. But the Web is full of writings that adhere to no standard for accuracy, thus making correction and challenge difficult.

Following these errors, which Trump supporters trumpet as “fake news,” James Surowiecki, a former columnist for The New Yorker, commented that reporters need to “SLOW DOWN,” adding that “being right is more important than being first.”

His remarks are what I learned in college, practiced as a journalist, and later taught for years at the University of Missouri and Western Washington University. Any mistakes the press makes become fodder for Trump and his supporters to yell “fake news” and claim bias — despite the follow-up corrections and clarifications. Yet, Trump and his group ignore his lies and distortions. They just move onto the next falsehood.

What Would You Do?
Journalists must keep their biases private as a professional standard despite the fact that Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, defends his falsehoods. The press reports the information, including the contradictions between what Trump says and the facts. For politicians, the test of staying with truth depends on how far they will go to support an agenda. So, here’s a question to the reader: What would you do if you sense someone is lying to you — challenge the person? Ignore it? Pass it on?

Whether a politician’s personal behavior can be separate from his or her professional ethic is again a paramount question following the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race Dec. 12. Greg Weiner hit on the topic clearly in a New York Times commentary when he wrote: “… a political act is a product of the statesman as an organic human being whose judgment is inevitably bound up with his or her character. Character is not reducible to private morality alone… His or her characterc — this is, who he or she essentially is—matters.” His remarks followed Trump’s support of Moore when Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, said before the Alabama vote, “We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A. Judges, 2nd Amendment and more.” Moore, of course, was outrageous in his personal behavior, and the majority of voters in Alabama looked at his entire person and found it wanting. Has anyone in power in the Trump administration ever talked about ethics?

So, whatever happened to facts, or at least their close proximity, as in past presidents of both parties? And for the voters, do facts even matter?

Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize writer for The New Yorker, tackles this complicated question in an article called “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New Discoveries About The Human Mind Show The Limitations Of Reason.” She reviews three books dealing with new research.

Feeling Empowered
In the first book, “The Enigma of Reason,” she finds the authors argue that “humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. … Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.” Anyone who has ever served on a committee will understand this! In short, go along to get along — we have a tendency to accept information from others and reject information that contradicts.

In a second book, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone,” the authors argue that people “believe they know way more than they actually do.” People have been relying on one another’s expertise since time began, and the book argues, “We can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”

Now with worldwide internet, Kolbert says “incomplete understanding is empowering.” All this shows up in politics. Kolbert writes that if three people discuss a point, but no one has firm knowledge and yet they all agree, “then we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.”

The book authors argue that if all of us and the pundits “spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views.”

The third book Kolbert reviews, “Denying the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us,” examines the gap between what science says, and what we tell ourselves. The authors use the example, among others, about people who think vaccinations are hazardous. “Immunization is one of the triumphs of modern medicine,” the authors write. But despite scientific evidence that they are safe and necessary, “anti-vaxxers remain unmoved.”

The important connection between Kolbert’s book reviews and Trump’s politics is that the authors suggest that to win a political argument, it is better to appeal to people’s emotions and not try to argue facts. The history of dictators shows how they used the power of convincing much of the public of lies and distortions, a tactic used well by Hitler and Mussolini and others. Emotions prevail over truth and require little work, but getting to the truth takes time, effort and knowledge.

For Further Reading

David Brooks, The Glory of Democracy, The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2017.

E.J. Dionne Jr., Our Political Foundation Is Rotting Away, The Washington Post, Nov. 29, 2017.

Trump’s Lies vs. Obama’s, The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2017.

Steve Coll, Donald Trump’s “Fake News” Tactics, The New Yorker, Dec. 11, 2017.

Michael M. Grynbaum and Sydney Ember, CNN Corrects a Trump Story, Fueling Claims of ‘Fake News’, Editor and Publisher, Dec. 11, 2017.

Greg Weiner, The Scoundrel Theory of American Politics, The New York Times, Dec. 8, 2017. # _


Lyle Harris, a former reporter in Washington, D.C., is Journalism Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.

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