Sep 1, 2023

This is not news.

Andrea Mitchell and Vivek Ramaswamy talking on MSNBC (Screenshot: MSNBC)
Andrea Mitchell and Vivek Ramaswamy talking on MSNBC (Screenshot: MSNBC)

A perfect example of biased media and deceptive politicians

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” Are you new here? Get free emails to your inbox daily.

Today's read: 9 minutes.

I was absent-mindedly scrolling through Twitter this week when I stumbled across a video that frustrated me so much, it made me think of everything that’s wrong with our politics at this moment. 

In the clip, which is just about two minutes long, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was being interviewed by Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. For a conservative candidate, there was something admirable about this: MSNBC is a network with an overt left-leaning bias, and he was walking into the lion's den the same way California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) did recently by going on Fox News to debate Sean Hannity. I wholeheartedly endorse this behavior from our politicians and our news outlets.

Unlike that interview, though, this was not a good-faith conversation on actual ideas and outcomes — it was a perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong with how our media interacts with our politicians today. On one side was a condescending liberal member of the media interested in "gotcha" questions and on the other an articulate politician telling a bunch of misleading half-truths.

You can watch the clip on Twitter here, but for simplicity's sake, I've gone through the trouble of transcribing the two-minute interaction. Below, I'm going to share that transcription with some commentary about what I'm seeing.

Andrea Mitchell: Let's talk about the hurricane that is now approaching [Florida]. You've called climate change and that agenda a hoax. You said more people are dying from bad climate change policies than there are of actual climate change. But according to a UN agency, extreme weather events, compounded by climate change, caused the death of two million people between 1970 and 2021. Can you offer a shred of evidence that more than two million people died from converting to clean energy?

First, Mitchell starts off this exchange by trying to pin Ramaswamy with a "gotcha" question. The framing is simple: "You say the climate change agenda is a hoax, but this authoritative agency says you're wrong." Mitchell isn't trying to learn more about Ramaswamy's position, and she isn’t trying to challenge her audience. She's trying to show her audience that she’s on their side — that climate change is real, renewable energy is good, and she’s going to “stand up” to Ramaswamy. She’s framing his belief as wrong, extreme, and in conflict with "the science." This question is supposed to make him look bad. It’s barely a question at all — it's an attack, and it sets the tone for everything that happens next.

The framing of the question isn't just bad because it’s not really a question, it's also just bad at what she’s trying to get it to do. Ramaswamy previously claimed that more people are dying from bad climate change policy than actual climate change (we'll get to this in a moment). Mitchell could simply ask him to prove that thesis and let him flounder. But instead, she wants to hit him with the “gotcha” question, so she ties his claim to research from the United Nations — that two million people died of from extreme weather events between 1970 and 2021 — and then asks Ramaswamy “to offer a shred of evidence” that more than two million people have died from converting to clean energy. It’s a slick media move. The problem, obviously, is that Ramaswamy would clearly dispute this premise. He doesn’t have to agree that climate change caused two million deaths, and has never suggested more than two million people have died from converting to clean energy, so the premise of the question is misleading to viewers.

It's bad for other reasons, too. Presumably, Mitchell is hoping to make the point that Ramaswamy is wrong to think "the climate change agenda is a hoax." Rather than prepare for this exchange or engage his ideas with curiosity, she outsources the authoritative voice to a global agency — one with very mixed reviews from the people she is probably hoping to get through to. The result isn't that Mitchell sounds convincing and that Ramaswamy sounds wrong, it's that her question sounds condescending and annoying — "Can you offer a shred of evidence?" like the know-it-all kid in class.

As she's talking, you can see Ramaswamy smiling and shaking his head, as if to say, "this is the most predictable attack line ever." Accordingly he makes quick work of her opening with the rhetorical tricks he's becoming more and more known for. 

Vivek Ramaswamy: I can offer clear evidence that the number of climate disaster related deaths is down by 98% over the last century. The number of people who died of hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and other weather-related events in 1920, for every 100 that died then, two die today. And the reason why is more plentiful, abundant access to fossil fuels and technology powered by fossil fuels.

Now it’s Ramaswamy’s turn to be disingenuous. This is a classic rhetorical trick from a slippery politician. Remember: Mitchell asks "Can you offer a shred of evidence that more than two million people died from converting to clean energy?" Ramaswamy doesn't answer that question, nor does he offer any evidence to support his initial claim that Mitchell is asking about, which is that more people die because of bad climate change policies than actual climate change itself. So now, thanks to Mitchell's deceptive attempt at a gotcha question and Ramaswamy's tendency to cleverly dodge such questions, the entire interview is off the rails in a matter of seconds.

Instead of answering, Ramaswamy restates the idea he wants to discuss, then breaks into exactly the kind of rehearsed answer he criticized fellow Republicans for on the debate stage last week (you can watch Ramaswamy perform the same memorized monologue, almost word for word, in a separate interview on TMZ). He claims that for every 100 people that died from climate-related disasters in 1920, just two die today. 

And to his credit, Ramaswamy’s numbers are right. They come from a reliable source and aren’t misinterpreted, exaggerated, or cherry-picked. According to Our World In Data, the average of annual deaths due to natural disasters in the 1920s was 523,892. For the 2020s, it’s 12,886. That is a ratio of 2.4 people dying this decade compared to every 100 from a century ago, which acceptably rounds to 2 for every 100. That’s 50x the number of people dying in 1920 compared to now. Ramaswamy could have said it that way, but he didn’t. He could have used the per capita numbers and claimed it was 162x more, but he didn’t. He could have cherry-picked a year and claimed the number was 1,000x greater, but he didn’t do that, either. And that’s commendable.

What he did do, though, was follow-up with a broad claim without showing his reasoning: "And the reason why is more plentiful abundant access to fossil fuels and technology powered by fossil fuels."

Of course, it isn’t directly the burning of oil and coal that have prevented natural disaster deaths, but other technological and medical advances. The progress we’ve made has come through technology like weather radars, alert protocols, television, cell phones, emergency systems, and all the other ways we have to track and warn people about natural disasters that we didn't have in 1920. Then of course the huge advancements in hospital care and surgical procedures we’ve made that have turned life-ending injuries into manageable ones.

And a century’s worth of technological progress would not have been possible without the abundant energy that came from tapping into fossil fuel sources. The author Vaclav Smil argues that advancements of human civilization come through controlling more energy sources and harnessing them more efficiently. So in a general way, Ramaswamy’s correct that the technological progress of the 20th century wasn’t possible without the fuel source of the 20th century — fossil fuels.

But there’s an obvious implication he’s making here that is also obviously untrue. The fuel sources of the 20th century do not need to be the fuel sources of the 21st century. And in fact, we know that the carbon emissions caused from fossil fuels are one of the major problems we’re facing in this century that we need technology to help us solve. “We need abundant energy to make needed technological advances to solve the next century’s problems” is a very reasonable argument that most people would agree with. But Ramaswamy implies, and later says outright, that the source of that energy should be fossil fuels. And to say that we need to burn oil and coal to solve the problems caused by burning oil and coal is, well, stupid.

And Ramaswamy isn’t stupid. This is the innate contradiction at the heart of the position he’s trying to sell voters: “Climate change is real, but fossil fuels will help.” If pressed on this, it’s an impossible position to defend. But interviewers never get us there, because Ramaswamy does a fantastic job of surrounding utterly indefensible arguments with sober and straight-faced claims. Here’s what he says next.

Vivek Ramaswamy: I can also tell you today — it is a hard fact, none of these things are disputed — eight times as many people die of cold temperatures than die of warm ones. The right answer to all temperature related deaths is more plentiful abundant access to fossil fuels. The Earth is covered by more green surface area today than it was half a century or a century ago because carbon dioxide is plant food.

Anytime a politician tells you "it's a hard fact, none of these things are disputed," your spidey sense should start tingling. It's probably a siren for a five-alarm pants-on-fire lie. Ramaswamy makes two arguments, very quickly. They both start with true, hard, indisputable facts — and they both jump to hilariously bad conclusions that no one would ever seriously argue.

First argument: “Eight times as many people die of cold temperatures than die of warm ones.” 100% true — and backed up by the reliable and often left-leaning news outlet The Washington Post. “The right answer to all temperature related deaths is more plentiful abundant access to fossil fuels.” Seriously? Let’s go right past the obvious exaggeration of ‘all’ deaths and assume he’s talking about ‘most’ deaths — those caused by extreme cold. We know that the homeless, the elderly, and those who work outside in extreme weather are the most susceptible to cold-weather deaths, but he’s suggesting the problem is that we’re just not burning sufficient coal to keep everyone warm? I don’t think so. 

Or is it, as Harry Stevens picks apart in the Washington Post, that the earth is getting warmer, so that’s actually something we’ll be better off for? Because that isn’t going to help reverse the trends of warming oceans, rising sea levels, changing ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity, all of which are happening at an unbelievably fast pace on the geological time scale. Every year that global warming increases, so does our likelihood of catastrophic flooding due to coastal erosion, chaotic mass migrations due to changing local ecosystems, food and water insecurity, and broader climate change. What’s more, as Stevens writes, deaths directly caused by heat are getting more common at the same time that deaths due to cold are getting less and less common.

Second argument: “The Earth is covered by more green surface area today than it was half a century ago…” Also true, and that’s definitely something worth celebrating. A big reason why scientists have long pushed for planting more trees to fight climate change is not only to act as a carbon sink, but because ‘green surface area’ mitigates warming. And while it’s interesting in its own right that Ramaswamy is using the phrase ‘green surface area’ without caring about mitigating warming, it’s still a true statement that “carbon dioxide is plant food.” It’s true that plants need CO2 to grow, and studies do show that trees are growing larger with a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. 

But there are several things deeply wrong with this conclusion, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we have a green light to add as much carbon to the atmosphere as we want. First, “Trees are eating the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere” is a far different claim than “trees are eating all the excess carbon out of the atmosphere,” which is not even close to being true. Second, tree growth is a mitigating factor caused by warming, but it doesn’t outweigh the compounding factors of warming like melting permafrost or melting ice sheets. Third, the relationship between more CO2 and tree growth is not as direct and causal as he makes it seem, since a lot of that ‘green surface area’ comes from tree-planting in China, which was intentionally and specifically done by China to combat climate change.

Mitchell could have stopped him on any one of those specifics and his argument crumbles. But I get it. Ramaswamy is moving fast, he’d catch anyone off guard. A simple broad question would have been great, too. Something like, “Are you saying that climate change is real, but not an issue?” or “Are you saying that burning fossil fuels has only positive consequences?” Either of those questions would have made Ramaswamy present a real argument, and who knows, maybe he’s thought of something that I haven’t considered.

But Mitchell doesn’t make him defend any of his statements, and we don’t get anywhere close to the innate contradiction at the center of his position that “climate change is real, but fossil fuels will help.” What we got instead made everything worse.

Andrea Mitchell: But—

Vivek Ramasway: And carbon dioxide as a percentage of the atmosphere is still at a relative low through human history.

Wait, I thought trees were thriving because of all the carbon in the atmosphere?

This statement is completely wrong. And it caught me totally off guard, because in a monologue filled with real facts and bad arguments, this was his first total lie. The proportion of carbon dioxide had been between 260 and 280 parts per million from 8000 BCE to 1900 CE. It’s now over 400. I have no idea where this claim is even coming from.

But Ramaswamy’s on a roll, and Mitchell lets his most bald-faced lie go right past her because she’s already decided on her next “gotcha.”

Andrea Mitchell: But what to do you say —

Vivek Ramaswamy: Those are hard facts and I think we have to acknowledge those facts when having this debate.

To be clear: These aren't hard facts — it’s a routine. It’s a series of increasingly less relevant facts leading to increasingly poor conclusions, with the bad arguments that connect them left totally unexplored, leading eventually to a bewildering and total lie, all wrapped in a practiced delivery.

But to bring us home, Mitchell gets to the point she’s been wanting to make.

Andrea Mitchell: There's a hard fact of the hurricane that is now approaching. And the mayor, three generations as a St. Petersburg resident, says he's never seen anything like this, the ocean warming. But let me move on to some —

Now we are really in the mud. I've written a lot about the evidence we have that climate change is both human-caused and something serious we need to invest in addressing. But I've also written about how the media lazily ties every major weather event to climate change, either for clicks or as an expression of their own political bias. And now Mitchell is engaging in one of the laziest arguments out there: She's linking a single event (this hurricane in Florida) to the opinion of one single person (the mayor) and using that anecdote to claim maximum harm. This is an example of what we called anecdotal reasoning in our edition on bad arguments. She also just meagerly offers "the ocean warming" as a throw-away clause at the end of a sentence before trying to move on.

And this is what really pushed me over the edge. It’s not so much that Mitchell made a poor argument in a combative interview — that’s definitely a problem and it’s something I abhor, but it isn’t uncommon. What really gets me is that Mitchell isn't engaging with any of the claims Ramaswamy made (many of which are misleading if not simply false) and she clearly wasn't prepared for them. So now she has started a combative interview without being prepared to engage in it and then "lost" the exchange, which means Ramaswamy has gotten to deliver a misleading narrative to her viewers without any sufficient pushback.

And then she gift-wrapped the final opportunity for him to grandstand and take his victory lap.

Vivek Ramaswamy: Andrea, let me respectfully offer a response to that. And I mean this with due respect. If someone on the other side were an uneducated person from Arkansas who didn't go to college, and offered one weather event as an end of one anecdote to help support the theory of global climate change, you'd laugh them off the stage as a rube for saying they don't follow data. The same shoe has to fit the other foot, follow the actual data.

Andrea Mitchell: I'm not talking about one person's opinion. We talk to professors, academics—

Vivek Ramaswamy: You literally just quoted one person's opinion, with respect. That's exactly what you just quoted. And I think that that's what's driving this kind of false narrative as opposed to the facts that I'm citing.

And… scene.

Ramaswamy is exactly right. He's right that Mitchell's argument is lazy, he's right that it's exactly the kind of argument liberals constantly mock conservatives for, and he's right that if the roles were reversed Mitchell would laugh those people off the stage. It’s a knockout punch, and you can tell Mitchell knows it — because she quickly tries to move on. Her attempt to embarrass Ramaswamy, motivated by her own political bias and the bias of her network, hasn’t worked. She wasn’t prepared for the conversation.

And, again: Mitchell appeals to "professors" and "academics" as if saying that alone is enough to win the argument. And, again, Ramaswamy easily calls her out for what she just did. All of this allows Ramaswamy to describe very real threats of climate change as a "false narrative" and then re-hash his entire arguments as "the facts." 

At this point, the clip ends. The account that I saw tweet this video out was Citizen Free Press, which is a conservative Twitter account. It shared the video with the caption that Ramaswamy just "took a blow torch to the climate change cult,” which — much like Ramaswamy in this interview — is half right. More accurately, he took a blow torch to MSNBC and Andrea Mitchell. 

Ultimately, this isn’t a story about Vivek Ramaswamy or Andrea Mitchell. They are just two players of many who participate in this kind of game every single day in our country, and this is just one example from this past week that happened to really annoy me.

This is the current state of our media and our politicians. 

Gotcha questions versus misleading statements of facts. 

Overt bias versus uninformed certainty. 

Ill-prepared versus well-rehearsed. 

When I watch this, I feel equally frustrated with both Mitchell and Ramaswamy. I see the flaws in what each side is doing, and I also see how well they serve each other.

Most of all, though, it's crystal clear to me this is not news. It isn't informative, it isn't helpful for voters, and it isn't adding anything valuable to the dialogue. Frankly, it doesn't look good for anyone involved. However, it is a valuable two minutes for shining a light on both biased media and deceptive politicians — and a great example of what happens when they meet face to face.  

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.