FACT-CHECKS AND BUZZ-KILLS! The facts can undermine pleasing tales. Consider Kristofs column: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 8, 2009
Antoinettes return: We should have mentioned this yesterday: Returning from her holiday break, Maureen Dowd noted that she once wrote a column accusing someone else of being frivolous! You can check it out in paragraph 7. You see something new every year.
Obamas promise: We were surprised when we read the front-page, lede story in todays New York Times. In part, the headlines said this: OBAMA PROMISES BID TO OVERHAUL RETIREE SPENDING/Potential for Risky Fight Over Social Security and Medicare.
Wow! Obama had promised to overhaul Social Security! And Medicare! Knowing he had a major story, Jeff Zeleny laid it right on the line in his opening paragraphs:
Youre right: The word promise doesnt appear in that text. Nor had Obama provided details of his approach to rein in Social Security and Medicare during his news conference. But hes headed for a risky battle, Zeleny warnedif he actually follows through with a serious effort, of course.
At the Times, this was the days biggest story; the report appeared at the top of page one, all the way on the right. And we were surprised when we saw the report, because wed already read the Washington Postand we didnt recall reading a word about Obamas promise there. At the Times, Obamas promise was the days biggest news. At the Post, had it even occurred?
So how about it: Did Obama make a promise to overhaul Social Security? After reading Zelenys full report, we still werent entirely sure. You see, we read all the way to the end of his piece, and we didnt find a single quotation of anything Obama had actually said about this matter! Three lonely words (a central part) were quoted in that opening paragraph. But that turned out to be the only quotation about this promise provided in the report!
Obama provided no details about his approach? Judging from this front-page report, he also provided no words!
Today, Times readers know that their incoming president has promised to overhaul Social Securityand they know this is the days biggest story. Meanwhile, readers of the Washington Post have barely heard a word about it! We thought again of the famous old joke, the one thats known as Goldbergs Law: The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches isnt sure.
Upon rereading the Post: In paragraph 9 of a page-two report, Lori Montgomery provided a slightly longer quotation from Obamas news conferencethough she showed no sign of thinking hed made some sort of newsworthy promise. To read your new presidents actual promise, you know what to do: Just click here.)
PART 3FACT-CHECKS AND BUZZ-KILLS: A long-time reader e-mailed us about that hapless farm-state pol, the sock-less fellow who inspired Tom Brokaws daft, feckless story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/7/09). Does that mean the anonymous candidate adopted the Nantucket custom of not wearing socks in his home state? our e-mailer wondered. Or did he just not wear socks at all? Then, our mailer puzzled further, thinking about Dear Jack:
Oddly? No. And a cynic would say that these silly stories have little to do with anything anyone thinks. Incomparably, we replied to our reader, explaining the use that is actually made of those small, telling details:
Did it make any sense when pundits screamed about the three buttons on Gores troubling suits? (On cable, Arianna even imagined that shed spotted four buttonsthat its just not the way most American males dress.) Obviously, no: This Brief Group Obsession made no earthly senseexcept as a transparent way to trash a pol whom the Village Press Corps now despised.
In short, these were deeply dishonest people. They pretended to draw meaning from small, telling details; in the process, they changed the shape of your world. And even today, Brokaws prepared to insult your intelligence, again affirming such sheer-nonsense tales. But so it goes inside our celebrity press corps, a cohort devoted to various types of inane, simple tales. Some facts are simply too good to checkand some pleasing stories are too good to drop.
Tomorrow, well return to a familiar type of feel-good storya familiar type of heartwarming tale in which favored people hatch miracle cures. But today, lets ponder the role played by fact-checking, using a column by Nicholas Kristof which appeared just before Christmas break.
As always, Kristof had noble intentionsintentions he was willing to state. Identifying himself as a liberal, he was determined to urge his fellow liberals to be more generous to the unfortunate. ([Y]ouve guessed it! he wrote near the end. This column is a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable.) In the process, he penned a pleasing storya story drawn straight from a pseudocon wet dream. Conservatives are more generous than liberals, the disappointed liberal admitted. Under the headline Bleeding Heart Tightwads, he started by saying how unhappy he was with his findings:
Was it just our imagination? Or had Kristof put himself in a familiar placea place where he was morally superior to liberals and conservatives both?
Indeed, this piece struck us as such Vintage Kristof that we decided to fact-check his claims. Were accustomed to columns like this from the scribecolumns in which he self-identifies as a liberal, while typing up claims which seem to come straight from pseudo-conservative spin tanks. But was his basic claim actually true? Are liberals stingyare they tightwads and cheapskates? Are conservatives really more generous? We had, and still have, no earthly ideaand as we fact-checked, we couldnt help wondering if Kristof knows the answer himself.
Kristof had a wonderful storya man-bites-dog tale, a tale which would endear him to those on the right. But was his story actually accurate? The facts about this matter seem quite murkyand Kristofs sources seem less than reliable.
First: Arthur C. Brooks, Kristofs principal source, isnt just any old author of books. Hes currently president of the American Enterprise Institutethe type of conservative think tank which does some perfectly decent work, but also churns all manner of dreck in our sad culture wars. Why didnt Kristof note this connection? If you know, please tell us.
Beyond that, what study by Google did Kristof mean? Well be honestwe didnt even know that Google does studies. But even after trying to fact-check, we dont know what Google study he meant. Even on-line, Kristof didnt link to this study, or to any other source. Other Times columnists link with abandon. Kristof left us coldin the dark.
Of course, it doesnt matter who makes a claim, as long as the claim is accurate. But is it true, what Arthur Brooks said? Do households headed by conservatives really give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals? Well only say this: After spending a chunk of time looking through some critiques of Brooks claims, wed have to say we simply dont knowand wed be surprised if Kristof can really defend his assertions. Well link to a few critiques belowbut there are some conceptual problems involved in these matters, and the data dont seem to be hugely dependable. Well also link you to a critique of that generosity index by the Catalog for Philanthropy. Their cited claim seems a bit shaky too. But it helped make a pleasing story.
Bottom line: Do conservatives give more than liberals? We dont know, and we doubt that Kristof knows either. And yes, you typically do feel punked, when the primary source of a column like this turns out to be the (unidentified) head of a major conservative outfit. We found this column very annoyingin part because its claims seem so murky, in part because invidious claims of this type play such an unhelpful role in promoting our inane culture wars. As youll recall, we offered a similar complaint when John Dean wrote a poorly-argued booka book which pleasingly said that conservatives are the big, very bad group.
Such sweeping claims should be argued with carebut scribes will often prefer a good story. Kristofs claims are pleasing from certain perspectivesthey may have helped Arthur Brooks get his jobbut his fact-checking seemed rather weak. But then, fact-checking just aint a strong suit among many modern upper-end scribes. Often, the facts will undermine simple talesand many journalists favor such stories over the buzz-kill provided by facts. How poorly do journalists work with factsthe kinds of facts that can kill pleasing tales? Tomorrow, well return to that bogus Holocaust taleand to similar tales from the classroom.
In case you want to waste your time too: How solid are the claims in Brooks book? It seemed to us, after doing some checking, that it would be quite hard to figure that out. One critique was offered at The Volokh Conspiracy, by Professor Jim Lindgren, not by Eugene Volokh himself. (Lindgren: Although the liberal v. conservative split is the hook for the book, the data are not nearly as stark as the hype surrounding the book might indicate. Just click here.) At the Boston Globe, Christopher Shea also wrote a critique which raised doubts about Brooks claims. Brooks's book should keep scholars busy for quite a while, given its wealth of empirical claims, Shea wrote. That said, we couldnt find a lot of critiques of Brooks claims, one way or another. Our guess: It would be very hard to evaluate his work.
In 2004, the Globe had also published a critique of that generosity index by the Catalog for Philanthropy. Matt Kelly reached this conclusion:
McCully had good intentions in creating that index. So did Kristof in writing his columnby his own admission.