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Unearthing truth from chaos

30 Sep 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Unearthing truth from chaos

Channel 4’s American voting data scoop wins high praise from Ray Snoddy as he stays up late to watch the first U.S Presidential debate

The first of the U.S Presidential debates was heralded by two remarkable scoops, one deployed during the quarrelsome debate and the other, which came all the way from UK broadcasting, surprisingly not.

Channel 4 News unearthed perhaps the best American political story a British broadcaster has ever come up with.

The channel got its hands on data from 200 million Americans in 50 states assembled with the help of Cambridge Analytica via Facebook in the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy then demonstrated how the data, which delved deep into individual proclivities, salaries and occupations had been used for the “deterrence” of black voters by the Trump campaign.

It was a joy to see Guru-Murthy turn up on doorsteps of voters in Wisconsin and watch the surprise and irritation on individual faces as their names, birthdays, personality traits, salary range and likelihood of supporting Trump were read out from the data.

It was a wonderful combination of combining the most sophisticated computer data with old-fashioned on the ground reporting.

Just as surprised were U.S political strategists who suspected such data existed but had been unable to get access to it until a little TV station in the UK hit the mother lode.

What the Trump campaign did was to identify those who had already made their minds up and those who might be persuaded by individually targeted ads.

Then in what many might think disgraceful, though not illegal behaviour, voters in voting districts where many black Americans lived were sent ads to “suppress” their intention to vote at all. They consisted of attack ads featuring something that Hilary Clinton said years ago, which could be construed as anti-black.

It worked. In some districts in Wisconsin the black vote, which would otherwise probably have gone for Clinton, was down by as much as 20%.

The numbers “suppressed” would not have had to have been very great because Trump won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral college votes by 23,000.

It is likely that similar tactics are being used again this time round, although Facebook insists that everything has changed since the Cambridge Analytica era.

How did Channel 4 News get its hands on such a scoop? Probably the channel was seen as a trustworthy beneficiary after all the hard yards it put in over the original activities of Cambridge Analytica.

Unfortunately, the issue was not raised in the debate even though the final section on the ethics of the election was tailor-made for a discussion.

Maybe it was just too complex and enormous to fit into a five- minute segment, which was dominated by such pressing matters as whether President Trump would abide by the verdict of the election. There were also noisy claims, without evidence, that the large-scale use of postal votes would turn the election into a fraud and a hoax.

Channel 4 News gave its huge story room to breathe, devoting no less than 45 minutes of its one-hour to the story followed by a further 15-minutes on day two with probably more to come.

Broadcast award ceremonies are made for scoops like this.

A Pulitzer may also be soon be winging its way to the New York Times for publishing – at last - the long lost tax records of Donald J. Trump.

The leak, apparently of Trump’s tax records from America’s Internal Revenue Service, showed that Trump paid just $750 Federal income tax in his first two years in office – probably less than a junior school assistant- and in many years nothing at all.

Rather more interesting, the records disclosed that far from fabled wealth Trump is personally responsible for $431 million of debt, much of which is due to be repaid within four years – something that the Democrats have branded a security risk.

Naturally Trump dismissed the leak, as he almost always does with uncomfortable facts, as “fake news.”

He did however undermine the logic of his position by claiming they were “illegally obtained” as well as being fake.

Obviously it is difficult for them to be both at the same time.

The Democratic challenger Joe Biden used the numbers whilst moderator and Fox News presenter Chris Wallace, who came under attack alongside Biden, asked Trump directly whether it was true he had paid only $750 in income tax in 2016-17.

Trump replied, without producing any evidence or detail that he had paid several million dollars that year.

Once again American voters will have to decide whether they believe Biden and the New York Times or Donald J. Trump.

Biden won the battle of the BBC fact-checkers who found only one of his statements inaccurate – the claim that the U.S economy was already heading for a hole before COVID-19 struck.

On everything from “creating the greatest economy in history,” reducing prescription drug prices and postal vote fraud, to a vaccine ready in weeks and Joe Biden’s son receiving a “dishonourable discharge” from the army, the BBC fact-checkers found Trump to be wanting.

Now the analysis is well under way with commentators highlighting the fact that President Trump resolutely refused to condemn white supremacists and their militias increasingly seen on U.S streets.

As for the debate itself, it was indeed a raucous and often undignified affair where Biden managed to stay cool, most if not all of the time, in the face of near continuous interruption and often outrageous claims.

The Trump strategy was clear - to go on perpetual attack to try to unsettle his opponent and land a knockout blow that would dent Biden’s consistent lead in the polls.

In that he failed although the tactics did succeed in provoking Joe Biden into calling Trump a liar and a clown and at one stage telling him to shut-up.

British election television debates are so much more refined by comparison.

If instant polls are to be believed Trump’s performance did not go down well with the 100 million television audience. Joe Biden was judged to have been the more truthful of the two by 65% to 29% and Biden was judged to have won the debate by 60% to 28%.

They must have been fake polls.

But congratulations to two news organisation on two great scoops and doing exactly what they should be doing, and with the election not due until 3 November, there could be time for many more.

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