Watch Your Intelligence:
Critical Reading of a Flawed Information Source

Watch Your Intelligence: Critical Reading of a Flawed Information Source

Oct. 7, 2023

I had an interesting talk with my father yesterday. He had a 2-for-1 subscription offer to Mother Jones, and we got into a discussion when I told him I didn’t like that magazine. Since then, I’ve been doing some thinking about how I pick my news sources, something I do very carefully, but have never thought about trying to explain. What I told him was, essentially, that Mother Jones is too biased, I don’t feel like I can trust them to give the sides of a story that may not agree with their basic worldview, and I wind up feeling like have to do my own research into anything they say to verify I’m getting something like an accurate picture, and it takes a lot of time that I could be spending just reading better commentary.

Unlike a lot of people, I’m not terribly partisan about my news sources. I dislike all the news sources that show a certain level of partisan bias, of trying to promote their particular understanding or opinions as being the truth so strongly that they don’t mind omitting or twisting some facts, if it helps that. In fact, in the past, I’ve been quicker to turn off from biased “news” organizations whose basic opinions I agree with than those that I don’t… listening to an uninformative account from someone I already agree with tells me nothing. Even a biased account from someone I disagree with at least gives me something of a hint about a perspective I don’t understand as well.

This is a conversation I’ve had a number of times over the years. Obviously there’s no such thing as objective reporting. But it’s also true that some reporting is reasonably unbiased, and some is too biased to be relied upon. The dividing line between what I find acceptable and what I don’t, what I think is genuine news reporting, or even outright opinion, and what I think has crossed the line into propaganda or manipulation, is hazy and tough to describe, although easy to discern as I’m reading.

As it happens, today I came across a clear example of something I have a big problem with, the kind of thing that leads me to skip a news or analysis source entirely.

Today I read an interview with historian Heather Cox Richardson. From what little I’ve read of Richardson, I agree with her opinions, and found her approach to be very knowledgeable and informative. Curious to read more, I checked out her Substack site at Rather than the kind of interesting historical analysis that had caught my attention from her, the front page of her Substack seemed to be mostly brief daily rundowns of current events. So I read a few.

One caught my eye: This discussed the recent ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the US House of Representatives. It’s short, only about 15 paragraphs, go ahead and read it before I discuss it.

Now, obviously, from the opening, this is an opinion piece, not a piece with any pretense of objectivity: “Yesterday, eight extremist members of the Republican congressional conference demonstrated that they could stop their party, and the government, from functioning. Indeed, that’s about all those members have ever managed to do.” She goes on to say, “They are not interested in governing; they are interested in stopping the government, apparently working with right-wing agitator Steve Bannon to sink the speakership of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).”

Now, that’s fine. It is entirely possible to write an opinion piece worth reading. (I will address this in detail at a later date; for me, the short answer is and always has been, if you understand your opponents’ arguments so well that you can explain them in terms they would agree with, then you are qualified to have and express an opposing opinion, and if you want to convince me, your opinion will have to demonstrate that understanding as well as expose a valid objection to it. To be persuasive you need to rebut your opponents’ understanding of their position, not your side’s. Otherwise you’re just making straw man arguments).

As a matter of fact, and this is incidental, I happen to agree with her opinions on those. I think she has truthfully characterized these particular individuals, their motivations and goals. So it’s not a matter of disagreeing with her.

The piece is full of those kinds of opinionated statements, again, most of which I agree are probably accurate. So far so good.

But there’s a very big problem with the piece, one that stuck out like a sore thumb to me, such a glaring example of what’s wrong with a lot of media discourse today that it ultimately prompted me to record these thoughts here. It’s in these two paragraphs, one rhetorical tactic that is far less fair game than simply stating even the most biased opinion. She crosses a line here that makes her useless to me as an information source. Can you spot it?

“Two Republicans have thrown their hats into the ring: Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Both are significantly to the right of McCarthy, and both carry significant baggage. Jordan was involved in a major college molestation scandal and refused to answer a subpoena concerning his participation in the attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Scalise has described himself as like Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ‘but without the baggage.’

“Republicans from less extreme districts, including the 18 who represent districts Biden won in 2020, are not going to want to go before voters in 2024 with the kinds of voting records Jordan or Scalise would force on them. “

Reading this, I caught it right away. It’s “Scalise has described himself as like Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ‘but without the baggage.'” I’ll explain why.

Taken on its own, a person comparing themselves in any way to David Duke, or choosing to praise him in particular of all people as having qualities you emulate, is very provocative. It’s the same way it might raise eyebrows for an artist to say something like, “As an artist, I use the same sense of color and composition as Hitler did in his paintings, only without his baggage”. The choice of object of praise is very suggestive in any case.

Here’s the thing. I have found that, when trying to influence opinion deceitfully, writers will use the provocative language contained a few words, but divorce it from any context, supplying only enough to provide reason for anger without giving any further detail. I might have breezed right past this sentence if it had said something like “Scalise in 2015 referred to himself in a speech to the House of Representatives as David Duke ‘but without the baggage’.” Well, no, to be honest, I still would have googled and checked it out. But I would’ve expected to find it to be true, few people lie outright about such easily disprovable things.

But she didn’t do that. And I thought to myself, this is an utterance that is outrageous enough to beg for further background explanation, more than almost anything I’ve ever read. And yet she just drops it like it’s supposed to be taken as a known fact. That’s a big red flag to me. A common tool of propaganda is to present something as if it’s simply a common understanding, as if it doesn’t need to be supported or argued at all, because, outside of very egregious and obvious cases like this, it often works: tell people something explicitly and they’ll question it; but tell them something that relies on it as a basic, unspoken presumption, and they may question what you’re telling them outright, but often they won’t stop to question the basic presumption you’re selling, because they don’t even notice it. In assertiveness training there’s a tactic called “fogging”, where you wear down the resistance of someone you’re in conflict with by never giving them an explicit, concrete statement they can oppose. You form a “soft fog” rather than a wall they could metaphorically beat their fists against. It’s a similar idea. By presenting things as a “soft fog” of underlying, unstated presumption, people’s natural oppositional tendencies don’t get piqued.

There was also a very amusing favorite example example of this, a favorite of mine, back in the 1990s, when a slyly humorous book was released called “Why Cats Paint”. If the book had been titled, “Do Cats Paint?” or even “Cats that paint”—insinuating that some cants don’t paint—of course, anybody looking at its first thought would be, “No, cats can’t paint.” But a book called “Why Cats Paint” is more likely to provoke the thought, “I didn’t know cats paint!” or, not to overestimate people, perhaps even, “Cats paint? Why? This I have to see.” Even I, reading it for the first time, had to look inside to completely realize it was a joke. The idea that cats paint was taken for granted, and it sold it. I thought titling it that way was an ingenious recognition of this human quirk.

Saying “Scalise has described himself as like Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ‘but without the baggage'” and moving on without any further detail is not so ingenious, it’s much more hamfisted. There is very obviously context missing from that, and I stopped reading to search online for the background to that statement.

Let me interject here: I probably very strongly disagree with nearly everything about Steve Scalise’s political views. In my opinion, believe he is at best badly misguided and has been primarily a political opportunist (although in Washington this is hardly a scathing indictment.) I don’t want to see him in power and would prefer to see him out of government entirely. I have no drive to defend him.

Further, I should parenthetically add take an especially dim view of not just bigots but anyone who coddles or doesn’t sufficiently oppose bigotry. It’s a topic for another essay and I’m not going to make a statement on it here but my feelings are very strong that even an appearance of not doing enough to distance yourself from open racists is a very big problem in my eyes.

So, that all said: I did some googling.

First thing I found: Scalise addressed an organization of white supremacists in 2002. Ok, that’s bad. But again, more information is necessary.

He has made strong verbal statements since then that. at the time. he would speak to any group interested in hearing his views, that he unequivocally disagrees with that organizations views, and would not have done it if he had known who he was speaking to. According to an officer of the organization at the time speaking in, Scalise’s speech was for about 15 minutes, and was “the typical mainstream Republican thing” and not “too far right”. (I should add, that representative went on to say, “He touched on how America was founded on Christian principles, Christian men who founded this country, and how it was believed it would go forward as a Christian nation and how we’re getting away from that”, which gives some context to that person’s idea of “not too far right”.)

Ok. I don’t support the guy, but, if he spoke to outright white supremacists for 15 minutes out of a 35 year political career, and has since said outright that he disagrees with them, didn’t know, and would not have done it if he had known, then I’m going to say, we may never know the truth, but, in the absence of any clear reason to disbelieve his account besides loathing his politics, this is not sufficient to condemn him on. There is plenty of grounds to condemn the guy on, but that is not among them.

So, on to the main matter. The first thing I noticed is that every search result says he “reportedly” made the comparison between himself and Duke. Finally, I found the source. From the same article cited above:

“Stephanie Grace, a Louisiana political reporter and columnist for the past 20 years, first with The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and now The Advocate of Baton Rouge, recalled her first meeting with Mr. Scalise. ‘He was explaining his politics and we were in this getting-to-know-each-other stage,’ Ms. Grace said. ‘He told me he was like David Duke without the baggage. I think he meant he supported the same policy ideas as David Duke, but he wasn’t David Duke, that he didn’t have the same feelings about certain people as David Duke did.'”

This appears to be the mention of this quote to which all other sources point.

Now, I stand by my earlier comments that David Duke is a funny choice to compare yourself to, any way you slice it. But my purpose here is not to debate Steve Scalise. It’s to point out that “Scalise has described himself as like Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ‘but without the baggage'”, with no further context provided, is a much different statement than, “A reporter said that in private casual conversation with her Scalise compared himself to David Duke, who was a rising star in his state’s politics when he started his career despite his involvement with the KKK, but the reporter said she felt Scalise was comparing himself to Duke’s policy ideas, which Duke had moderated for more widespread popular consumption, and not to Duke’s bigotry.”

None of this exonerates Scalise, but it means Richardson is not a trustworthy journalist. It appears to me she was trying to guide the reader to a conclusion—”Scalise is either a racist or comfortable with racism”—through omission and misattribution, rather than simply providing the entirety of relevant facts, which don’t support that conclusion as strongly as anyone who sensibly opposes Scalise perhaps would like.

Incidentally, it bears mentioning there’s an article here discussing Scalise’s record of involvement in the ’90s with legislation that is questionably racist, but also, his personal work with grassroots efforts to directly help the poor and communities of color in his state, as well as his character being strongly defended by LA Rep. Cedric Richmond, a colleague who was himself both an opposition Democrat and a person of color. In fairness, he has also, since I began writing this, been defended against accusations of racism by Rep. Troy Carter, a Democratic Congressman and person of color who has known him for 25 years (

Scalise may, in fact, be a racist or comfortable with racism, or he may not. However, it’s not germane to my point here, which is that I can’t use a source that tries to get me even to what may be true by creating a false impression, by omitting information or misattributing something reported secondhand as having been said as a direct quote, and with an explanation by the person reporting, to the effect that she didn’t think it was as bad as it might be interpreted, simply removed entirely.

It pains me to say it about someone I probably agree with ideologically. I wish my ideological side would stick hard to intellectual integrity and honesty, I think it undermines our goals not to.

And in this case, Richardson’s rhetorical dishonesty stuck out like a sore thumb, and the concern is, her writing may be peppered with better-executed examples of this that would have gone right by me unnoticed, gradually misinforming me and leading me to form views not based on the facts. Once I see someone is willing to be untrustworthy, my guard is up, and rather than devote the extra cognitive energy required in reading them to find buried assumptions implicit in their writing or statements which may not be factually true as presented, I’d rather just skip it.

There’s another writer I agree with a lot called Caitlin Johnstone. It’s unfortunate, because she’s got an incredible skill at keeping tabs on people’s statements over time and pointing out things that many people would rather the public forget. She’s very strident and far on the fringes of what might be called countercultural writing today. But she also makes a lot of declarations, things I often actually fundamentally agree with, without supporting them in any way, just kind of declaring them as if they’re fact. It makes her simultaneously fascinating and repellent, and unfortunately, ultimately useless in some ways.

If you’re trying to reach me as an audience, you really have to cite your sources. It keeps people honest.