Trump, Russia, and Causation

There’s an NBC Meet the Press report doing the rounds on social media today purporting to establish an interesting causal connection between reporting on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media. In the video, Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd draws on the following evidence:

http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/emerging-pattern-trump-media-attacks-follow-reporting-on-russia-885229635807

It’s a tactic with a pattern. The president’s attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia. On January 5th, NBC News reported on the intelligence community’s report on Russian influence in the election. On January 6th, President-Elect Trump tweeted, “I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top-secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.” On February 13th, 14th, and 15th, news outlets reported on Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. On February 16th, President Trump spent much of a 77-minute news conference attacking the press

The video then goes on to point out ways in which White House officials cajoled FBI officials and conservative lawmakers into trying to snuff out the ongoing news story concerning Trump’s connection to Russia.

That one kind of event frequently follows another is not of course definitive proof of  direct or indirect causation. There are coincidences, for one, and sometimes the events will be independently caused by a third factor. In the northern hemisphere, there’s a strong incidence of people dressing up warmly shortly after birds migrate south; but it’s implausible to think that bird migration causes this sartorial behaviour; instead, both are caused, in part, by the changing seasons.

The repeated succession of two types of events is, however, defeasible evidence of a casual connection and at first sight, the timing of news stories about alleged connections between Russia and the Trump administration, on the one hand, and Trump’s attacks on the media, on the other, looks quite alarming. This appearance disappears, however, once one comes to appreciate that both kinds of events–the reporting and the attacks–are incessant.

What Todd’s report misses is that the mainstream media have reported on ties between Russia and the Trump administration, either explicitly or by innuendo, every single day in recent weeks. This reporting and editorializing spans the breadth of the corporate news media. Below is a non-exhaustive sample of reporting on this theme since Trump’s inauguration.

January 20th: Vanity Fair, Salon

January 21st: Politico, Financial Times

January 22nd: Salon, Huffington Post

January 23rd: CNN, CBS, NPR

January 24th: Newsweek

January 25th: Politico,

January 26th: NPR, NPR

January 27th: New York Times, GQ, Business Insider

January 28th: Politico

January 29th: Huffington Post

January 30th: The Atlantic

January 31st: Voice of America, The Daily Beast

February 1st: Wall Street Journal

February 2nd: The Hill

February 3rd: GQ

February 4th: NPR

February 5th: The Hill, NBC

February 6th: ABC

February 7th: CNN

February 8th: Washington Post

February 9th: New York Times,

February 10th: NPR, Boston Globe

February 11th: NPR, Business Insider

February 12th: Washington Post, Washington Times

February 13th: The Hill, LA Times

February 14th: New York Times, CNBC

February 15th: The Independent,

February 16th: MSNBC, The Atlantic

February 17th: Fortune, Bloomberg

February 18th: Miami Herald, Reuters

February 19th: LA Times, New York Times

February 20th: Vanity Fair, MSNBC

February 21st: PBS, Slate, Newsweek, New York Times

February 22nd: Vox, Reuters

February 23rd: Vox, Politico

February 24th: NPR, Guardian

February 25th: The Guardian

February 26th: Newsweek, The Guardian

This makes the claim that Trump’s attacks against the media come directly after reports connecting him to Russia trivially true, because any time at all comes directly after such  reports. That those attacks have “escalated” recently, as Todd puts it in the same segment, conceding that they have, is also poor evidence of any interesting connection for the same reason.

It’s worth mentioning that Trump’s attacks on the media are also a virtually daily occurrence, even if we restrict our attention to his Twitter feed and ignore the various speeches he has given and comments he has made to the same effect. Provided there were sufficient news stories connecting Trump to Russia to make sense of “repeatedly” (a presupposition of Todd’s claim), this would also make Todd’s claim that Trump’s “attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia” trivial.

So the fact that Trump’s attacks on the media follow reports on his administration’s alleged ties to Russia appears to be either a coincidence (in the broadest sense of the word), or else derivative of a more plausible causal relationship. For instance, it seems likely that a causal relation exists between the media’s (mostly justified) general antipathy toward Trump and Trump’s criticisms of the media. This more general claim is supported at least by the fact that Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” accusations respond to a number of news themes, not just those concerning Russia.

I suppose that, in some sense, this more plausible causal connection would entail the one Todd means to establish, since the reports connecting Trump to Russia are an instance of the news media’s more general antipathy toward Trump. But the point of Todd’s claim is to distinguish the Russia-focussed reporting as uniquely reliable in eliciting Trump’s ire, since this is a way of supporting the claim that Trump is working on behalf of the Russian government (because, presumably, he would be especially sensitive to reporting that would reveal this fact). But there’s nothing here to support that unique causal relationship, even if it is true.

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