Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank is as lousy a statistician as he is a political commentator.
Milbank claims journalists have been harder on President Joe Biden in the first year of his presidency than they were on former President Donald Trump in his last.
To back this claim, he points to data research by a group called FiscalNote, whose “artificial intelligence” reviewed some 200,000 news articles to determine “sentiment” based on variables including adjective placement.
The group’s findings, the Washington Post columnist writes, confirm his worst fears: “My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy.”
His thesis is obviously bunk — as if a computer could ever hope to gauge “sentiment” accurately depending on adjective placement. However, after a little additional digging, most notably by Don’t Walk, Run! Productions, it turns out Milbank’s theory is even flimsier than initially suspected.
Put simply, the research upon which his entire thesis rests, the supposed proof of the press’s collective failure to defend our big, wet Core Democracy™, is utter trash.
Second, the findings are irredeemably inconsistent.
A truly neutral article is ranked at 0.000, according to FiscalNote. The higher the number, the more positive the coverage; the lower the number, the more critical the coverage. Yet, there’s no rhyme or reason to the rankings.
On Jan. 21, 2021, for example, CNN published an article titled “READ: Joe Biden’s inaugural address.” The article contains no opinion whatsoever. It’s simply a transcript of the president’s inaugural speech.
Yet, the “AI” ranks the article a +0.260 on the “sentiment” scale.
Newsmax likewise published a wholly neutral article in January titled “Text of President Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address.” There’s nothing to the story but the text of Biden’s inauguration speech.
The “AI” ranks the Newsmax article a +0.355.
It gets worse.
On April 29, 2021, CNN published another transcript under the neutral headline “Read President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress.” Again, there’s no opinion or commentary included. It’s just the text of the president’s speech.
The “AI” ranks the article a +0.2688.
The Washington Examiner, meanwhile, did the exact same thing as CNN, publishing only the text of Biden’s address to Congress. The “AI” ranks the Washington Examiner article a -0.1010.
This is to say nothing of the fact the “AI” inexplicably awards positive rankings to critical coverage and critical rankings to positive coverage.
A January ABC News puff piece heralding Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s first tweets from the White House registers at -0.0701 on the “sentiment” scale. Meanwhile, an Associated Press report bearing the none-too-flattering headline “Immigrant detentions soar despite Biden’s campaign promises” clocks in at +0.0333.
An Associated Press fact-check titled “Biden distorts Virginia’s electoral history,” which concludes the president did indeed distort Virginia’s electoral history, ranks at +0.1790. At the same time, an ABC glow-up hailing Biden’s signing of an anti-Asian hate crime bill, which the newsgroup describes as a “significant break” in “partisanship,” ranks at -0.1632.
Still, it gets worse.
There are multiple duplicates in FiscalNote’s dataset. This is in and of itself a problem, as duplicates will naturally throw off the weighted averages. But it’s actually worse than this. The “AI” actually awards different “sentiment” grades to the exact same stories.
An ABC report titled “Biden lands overseas without deal after House delays infrastructure vote” is listed twice in the data spreadsheet. The first time it appears, it ranks at -0.1400. The second time it appears, it ranks at -0.0824.
An Associated Press article titled “Pro-Biden groups to spend $100 million on August ad blitz” likewise appears twice. The first time it appears, it ranks at +0.1581. The second time it appears, it ranks at +0.0540.
A New York Times opinion article titled “Biden Should Finish the Wall” appears no fewer than three times in the dataset.
Its ratings are -0.3743, -0.1726, and -0.3136.
Also, a number of articles included in the “Articles Analyzed-Biden” data subset have exactly nothing to do with Joe Biden, including an Associated Press report titled “Lee Hart, wife of 1984 presidential hopeful Gary Hart, dies.” The name “Joe Biden” doesn’t appear even once in the story. Yet, it ranks at -0.3617 on the “sentiment” scale as a negative against the current president.
One final thing: The “Articles Analyzed-Trump” data subset is supposed to review reports published between January and November 2020. However, for literally dozens of stories, the publication dates as reported by FiscalNote do not match the actual publication dates.
FiscalNote claims the ABC story “GM announces jobs, electric vehicle after Trump criticism” was published on Jan. 1, 2020. However, it was actually published on March 22, 2019. The data also claim a Chicago Tribune editorial titled “Trump trifecta: He backs Hong Kong, supports democracy, annoys China” was published on Jan. 1, 2020. In actuality, it was published on Nov. 28, 2019.
And so on.
Did Milbank, or any of the cable hosts who excitedly promoted his column, actually read the data? For their sake, I hope not. Because if they did, and they still came away with the impression it proves Biden has had a rougher go of it than Trump did last year, it means they are too stupid to be trusted with a calculator, much less a national platform.
Read more at the Washington Examiner.