Yesterday CNN’s Chris Cillizza looked at the recent political landscape, specifically the Jussie Smollett case, and offered to help us make sense of it. According to Cillizza, the core truth of these incidents is that both sides, left and right, are doing the same thing to the other. So, first up, here’s what the left did in the Smollett case:
California Sen. Kamala Harris called it “an attempted modern-day lynching.” So did New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. (He used those exact same words.) “This is a sickening and outrageous attack, and horribly, it’s the latest of too many hate crimes against LGBTQ people and people of color,” tweeted New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
On and on it went. Why? Because it seemed so ready-made for politicians hoping to make a point about the poisoning of our culture by Trump and his ilk: Smollett is gay, black and an outspoken critic of Trump. Of course Trump supporters reacted violently!
Okay, fair enough. Now here’s what conservatives did:
…sources with knowledge of the case have told CNN the police now believe Smollett paid two men — brothers — to stage the attack on him. Smollett has denied that charge but has yet to speak again directly with the police about the circumstances surrounding the incident on January 29.
That news has led to a massive conservative counterattack — on Democrats and the media who they argue were all too willing to cast Smollett as the victim of an attack, even though corroborating evidence was in short supply.
So the left attacked without waiting for the facts and the right counterattacked based on what police told the media after an investigation of the case. Is that really the same thing? Cillizza says it is:
…politics has become so, so base-centric in the last decade-ish, politicians are forever on the hunt for stories that confirm what their base already believes. If they can be the first and/or loudest voice in condemnation, they believe that helps them — especially when they are running for president.
And so, Democratic 2020 candidates were very quick to believe Smollett’s version of events. And now Republicans — especially those aligned with the Trump White House — are just as quick to seize on the idea this was all an elaborate hoax. Both sides are simply exhibiting confirmation bias.
Look, I’m prepared to admit that both sides of the aisle exhibit confirmation bias. I’m just not sure this is a really good example and here’s why: A police investigation is not cognitive bias. The left jumped on the initial reports of this story and the media played it up. It fit their preconceived idea of who Trump supporters are and it made all those people look bad. The right had doubts and those doubts appear to have been substantially (though not finally) confirmed by a police investigation that involved looking at street cam video, speaking to witnesses, and arresting two suspects based on their movements that night via Uber. Then, after a day of interrogation, the suspects were released after reportedly telling police Smollett organized the attack and paid them to carry it out. That’s not cognitive bias its evidence.
Granted, the story could take another turn today or tomorrow. Smollett hasn’t confessed. Maybe the brothers are lying. But it’s simply not the case that we have the same lack of information now that we had at the start. We really do know a lot more now about this incident that isn’t purely what we hope is true. So I don’t think it’s fair to say both sides are engaged in the same type of leaping to conclusions based solely on prior assumptions.
Later in his piece, Cillizza mentions the Covington Catholic story as another example of both sides engaging in confirmation bias. And here again, I have to say that’s not what happened. The left absolutely jumped to conclusions based on a brief video clip that didn’t give any context. Basically, they saw a smirking kid and proclaimed him the poster child for Trump’s America, a hateful figure with no respect for adults.
And then people began looking at the lengthy videotapes showing exactly what happened. And it turned out, Nick Sandmann wasn’t the aggressor, hadn’t threatened or blocked anyone. In fact, his group had been the subject of racist taunts from Black Hebrew and Native American groups and had mostly resisted responding in kind. It also turned out that the person who claimed he was the victim, Nathan Phillips, was lying about a lot of what he said on television.
The right put forth the evidence that the mob had gotten this wrong and gradually, a number of honest people on the left admitted they’d made a mistake and some even apologized and deleted their initial reactions (the threat of lawsuits may have helped motivate a few).
The point is that, once again, the left and right were not engaged in the same project. One side was running full speed with confirmation bias and got the story wrong. The other side looked at the actual facts (as provided by the videos) and successfully argued the truth was other than it first appeared. The “counterattack” wasn’t of the same nature as the initial attack. Why can’t Chris Cillizza see those differences?
Could it be that he doesn’t want to be the guy who writes a column saying ‘The left is really going full tilt with confirmation bias this year’ because he knows the blowback online would be swift and vicious? That possibility must have at least crossed his mind.