Confirmation bias: I really wanted to believe


The Guardian article about Julian Assange, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin was one I wanted to believe.

I read The Guardian, and rely on this British publication for accurate, wide-ranging reporting on world news, including U.S. news, since we are part of the world. I also read and rely on The Intercept, a publication edited by Glenn Greenwald, Betsy Reed, and Jeremy Scahill, and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. So when The Intercept said an article in The Guardian was “completely false,” they got my attention.


The story: Who said what

The Guardian story – “Julian Assange gives guarded praise of Trump and blasts Clinton in interview” – was published December 24 and promptly went viral. Lots of people wanted to hear bad things about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. In the first two paragraphs, Ben Jacobs asserted that, “in an interview,” Assange “offered guarded praise” of Trump and sharply criticized Clinton. Reading these two paragraphs, a reader might assume that Jacobs interviewed Assange and that Assange praised Trump. But no – read on.

In the third paragraph, Jacobs acknowledges that the interview was with the Italian newspaper la Repubblica, and links to that interview. (A reader — like me — might assume that Jacobs either reads Italian or had access to a translation of the interview. That’s not true. The interview is published entirely in English.)

Jacobs’ summary of the interview emphasizes Assange’s criticism of Clinton and claims praise for Trump. I’m no fan of Assange, so I would have been inclined to believe Jacobs. I would have been inclined to believe that Assange and Wikileaks set out to sabotage Clinton’s campaign, that Assange had a close relationship with the Putin regime, and that this was still more evidence of Russian support for Trump. I would have been completely wrong.

In The Guardian’s Summary of Julian Assange’s Interview Went Viral and Was Completely False, Greenwald tears apart the Jacobs article:

“[The Guardian article] made two primary claims — both of which are demonstrably false. The first false claim was hyped in the article’s headline: ‘Julian Assange gives guarded praise of Trump and blasts Clinton in interview.’ This claim was repeated in the first paragraph of the article: ‘Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has offered guarded praise of Donald Trump. …’

“The second claim was an even worse assault on basic journalism. Jacobs set up this claim by asserting that Assange ‘long had a close relationship with the Putin regime.’”

Going back to the original La Repubblica interview, and following up with other evidence from other sources, Greenwald totally debunks Jacobs’ claims. Most damning is the single Assange quote about Trump that appears in Stefania Maurizi’s interview:

“Hillary Clinton’s election would have been a consolidation of power in the existing ruling class of the United States. Donald Trump is not a DC insider, he is part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States, and he is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities. They do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilising the pre-existing central power network within DC. It is a new patronage structure which will evolve rapidly, but at the moment its looseness means there are opportunities for change in the United States: change for the worse and change for the better.”

In no way can any rational person interpret this as “guarded praise” for Trump. The allegation about Assange and Putin/Russia is equally wrong – read the Greenwald article for a detailed debunking, a stinging critique of the Guardian/Jacobs animosity toward Wikileaks and Assange.

As Greenwald correctly points out:

“One’s views of Assange are completely irrelevant to this article because, presumably, everyone agrees that publication of false claims by a media outlet is very bad, even when it’s designed to malign someone you hate. Journalistic recklessness does not become noble or tolerable if it serves the right agenda or cause. The only way one’s views of Assange are relevant to this article is if one finds journalistic falsehoods and Fake News objectionable only when deployed against figures one likes.”

Who I believe – and why

The Guardian was wrong about Assange. The article appealed to my biases, and I wanted to believe it, but it was just wrong.

The desire to believe is called “confirmation bias.” As Daniel Klein described it in The Atlantic in 2011, “A great deal of research shows that people are more likely to heed information that supports their prior positions, and discard or discount contrary information.”

Denouncing The Drudge Report and Fox News is easy. Pointing out the flaws, faults and omissions in mainstream media is not much harder. Finding failure in a news source I (still) rely on feels awful, but I can’t look away from the truths that Greenwald documents.

I generally rely on The Guardian for accurate reporting.  It’s been around a long time (1851) and is owned by a trust founded in 1836 “to secure the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity and to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of The Guardian free from commercial or political interference.” According to Wikipedia, ” Profits are reinvested in journalism rather than to the benefit of an owner or shareholders.” The Guardian published exposés of government hacking and surveillance, including Edward Snowden’s revelations and played a leading role in the Panama Papers investigation.

While newer (2014) and far smaller than The Guardian, The Intercept produces excellent investigative journalism and exposes under-covered stories and points of view. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras took the lead in bringing Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping to light, at considerable personal risk to themselves. With a background as a lawyer and a journalist, Greenwald wrote for the U.S. edition of The Guardian until leaving in 2013 for the Omidyar start-up.

Does Greenwald’s exposé of the Jacobs article mean I’ll stop reading The Guardian? No. If I stopped reading every flawed news source, I’d have no news at all. Instead, I take this as a strong reminder to look carefully at reporting, especially reporting that “uncovers” shocking or startling news.

The lessons for reading the news

Some specific take-aways from this episode:

  1. Read the whole story. Headlines often lie. And, as Maria Konnikova explained in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, “a headline determines how many people will read a piece, particularly in this era of social media. But, more interesting, a headline changes the way people read an article and the way they remember it. The headline frames the rest of the experience.”
  2. Compare and triangulate news reports on important stories. Read multiple reports. Then use a Venn diagram approach – what are the common facts that appear in opposing sources?
  3. Confirmation bias warps judgment. Be especially suspicious of stories that say exactly what you want to believe. Look for evidence on all sides.
  4. Read original texts whenever possible. That means the original text of the interview, not just Jacobs or Greenwald writing about the interview. (All three articles are linked below, so you can do just that.)

Read more about it:

1 Comment

Filed under analysis, media, news

One response to “Confirmation bias: I really wanted to believe

  1. Mark Peterson

    I felt the same way when I read the Guardian story. I admire your stance that truth trumps anyone’s particular bias even, as you say, when one wants the erroneous story to be so.
    The quote by Assange in the article at first didn’t sound much like other Assange quotes that have been made public. I assume the stilted language is at least in part because it was translated from English (or perhaps Swedish) into Italian, and then back to English.


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