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Daily Howler: Cox gets it right about a new study--and Herbert forgets the past
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COX GETS IT RIGHT! Cox gets it right about a new study–and Herbert forgets the past: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 29, 2008

COX GETS IT RIGHT: Last evening, Dan Abrams was in high dudgeon about that new, as-yet unreleased, study of campaign coverage. He was in high dudgeon—and he was wrong, at least in his initial description:

ABRAMS (7/28/08): A new nonpartisan study finds that the press is tougher—that’s right, tougher—on Barack Obama than on John McCain.

In reality, this study doesn’t make any claims about “the press;” it only reviews the three network evening news broadcasts. In fairness, Abrams semi-explained that point as he continued, although the distinction still wasn’t made clear. But uh-oh! In his full introduction, he described some underwhelming “findings”—underwhelming findings from the CMPA, a generally underwhelming organization:

ABRAMS (7/28/08): A new nonpartisan study finds that the press is tougher—that’s right, tougher—on Barack Obama than on John McCain. The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, which has studied network news since the 1980s, analyzed coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC and found that when reporters, anchors and analysts expressed any opinion, they were significantly more negative toward Obama, 72 percent than to McCain, 57 percent...What happened to the liberal media?

Again, Abrams got it wrong. The (unreleased) study doesn’t “analyze coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC.” It treats coverage on those three networks’ evening news shows only.

But let’s leave that distinction to the side; this is, after all, the modern news business, where facts are rarely rendered with care. What makes this study so underwhelming, even before we get to see it? Posting at Swampland, Ana Marie Cox got a basic point right:

COX (7/28/08): The authors [of the study] admit that "most on-air statements during that time could not be classified as positive or negative," and that, in fact, found "less than two opinion statements per night on the candidates on all three networks combined." (I actually think that this apparent LACK of bias should be the real headline of the study.) Let's be generous and say that the average was about 1.5 "opinionated" statements a night—that's a grand total of about 60 "biased" statements since the study began on June 8.

We agree with Cox. If we simply accept this study’s findings, the relative lack of statements of opinion is a large part of this story. But that hardly captures the range of problems with this study, which hasn’t been released. (Oops! It has finally been released! Go ahead—click here.)

Simply put, CMPA’s studies are rarely worth the pixels they burn. (Neither are similar studies from other orgs.) The notion that CMPA can quantify “positive/negative” coverage usually turns out rather poorly. On what basis does CMPA decide that some statement is “positive” or “negative?” Often, organizations which offer such studies have arcane notions of what those terms mean. When they give examples, we sometimes learn that their idea of a “negative” comment doesn’t track our own real closely. And sometimes, these orgs give no examples at all. We are left with no real idea of what they’re talking about.

Can CMPA really quantify the tilt of the three evening news shows? We’ll believe it when we see it. By the way, let’s say it again: As of Tuesday morning, this study hasn’t been released. Everything we know about it seems to come from the Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey, who apparently got an early peek. People who rail about its findings haven’t even seen it yet. But again: These “studies” are usually thoroughly worthless. Liberals and progressives would be well-advised to keep that fact in mind.

We’ll have to say that Cox gets it right in the part of her post we’ve excerpted. If we accept this study’s findings on faith, very few statements of opinion have littered those evening news broadcasts. Who knows? When the study gets released, we may see a few samples. Don’t assume that you will agree with the way the org judges such things.

Visit our incomparable archives: In June, David Broder bungled a similar study, this one by the Project for Excellence. That study was extremely shaky—and Broder’s description of it was wrong. But then, these studies are rarely of value. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/2/08.

NOW THAT’S WHAT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT: In one way, Bob Herbert is right. But in one way, Bob Herbert is wrong:

HERBERT (7/28/08): I’ll say this about Senator Obama. He sure raises people’s hackles. I’ve never seen anyone so roundly criticized for such grievous offenses as giving excellent speeches and urging people of different backgrounds to take a chance on working together. How dare he? And 200,000 people turned out to hear him in Berlin. Unforgivable.

The man has been taken to task for promoting hope, threatened with mutilation by Jesse Jackson for suggesting that a lot of black fathers could do better by their kids and had his patriotism called into question because he wants to wind down a war that most Americans would dearly love to be rid of.

Herbert is right in one way; Obama has been “roundly criticized” for some rather unlikely offenses. But Herbert has “never seen anyone so roundly criticized” before? If so, he has moved beyond history.

In fact, Democratic White House candidates have been “roundly criticized” for absurd offenses for several cycles now. Herbert may have forgotten this fact because, in the past, he took part in the process. Remember? When Bush and Gore held their crucial first debate, Gore was “roundly criticized” for the “grievous offense” of sighing a few little tedious sighs—sighs whose volume got jacked up for endless use on a loop tape. Herbert may have forgotten this fact because he was one who “roundly criticized” Gore for the outrageous conduct. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/5/07. Trust us—this isn’t pretty.

This is part of what we were talking about in yesterday’s HOWLER. We have never seen a major journalist come to terms with his cohort’s past trashing of the Clintons and Gore. During Campaign 2000, Candidate Gore was “roundly criticized” for the most ludicrous “offenses” imaginable—and the process lasted twenty straight months. Herbert said nothing in real time. Today, he forgets that it happened.

(By the way: Starting in June 1999, Hillary Clinton was “roundly criticized” for the “grievous offense” of saying, accurately, that she, as a child, had rooted for the Cubs and the Yankees. Was Herbert alive on the planet then? Here on earth, this sort of thing has transpired for the past sixteen years.)

It's easier to throw silly stuff at Dems—in this case, at Candidate Obama—because the practice is part of modern press and political culture. But for Herbert, this story begins today. We’ll say again what we told you yesterday: We’ve never seen a major journalist deal with this history honestly.

BROOKS GETS IT RIGHT: Last week, we talked about reading books to an eager two-year-old child. Today, David Brooks—praising Dems—adds to what we said:

BROOKS (7/29/08): Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.

We’ll suggest that you read the full column. Regarding the children who aren’t currently “bathed in that atmosphere:” They deserve better than what they get when we construct gong-show tales about transplendent school systems that work. On balance, we still don’t know how to serve low-income kids. We shouldn’t pretend that we do.

WAKE COUNTY ON HOLD: For various reasons, we’re going to wait until next week to do much more on the Wake County schools. (Tomorrow or Thursday, we’ll look at last Sunday’s piece, by Daniel de Vise, concerning those Maryland test scores.) For those who find this topic interesting, we’ll suggest a few points of review:

The 40 percent conundrum: Yesterday, we posted an afternoon update to the HOWLER. In it, the very pleasant Emily Bazelon explained where she got that “forty percent” statistic for her piece in the New York Times magazine. We’re still assuming the figure is wrong. We’re trying to follow up further.

Mister Smith went to Charlotte: In recent years, it has been amazingly easy to get major journalists to praise North Carolina’s transplendent school systems. In the fall of 2005, Hedrick Smith did a PBS special in which he said that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools (Charlotte and environs) were solving the riddle of low-income education. (For an overview, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/17/05.) As with Alan Finder’s piece in the New York Times, Smith cited Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s giant score gains—without noting that similar score gains had been recorded all over the state. This was part of the overview of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools on the PBS program’s web site:

“MAKING SCHOOLS WORK” WEB SITE (2005): Charlotte-Mecklenburg under [superintendent Eric] Smith took a centralized approach to reform... Smith and his staff set high expectations for all students and then promoted Equity-plus, a concept that insured low-performing inner city schools were given sufficient resources to lift their students to district-wide levels of achievement.

After eight years of system-wide reform, Charlotte-Mecklenburg shot to the top on NAEP tests in early 2004, with each ethnic group outperforming its peers in nine other major urban school districts in reading and math. Moreover, from 1995 to 2001, the number of African-American students in Charlotte schools reading on grade level more than doubled, rising from 35 percent to 70 percent.

There we went again! Even as Finder was telling Times readers that Raleigh had solved the low-income problem, Smith was saying much the same thing about the Charlotte schools. According to Smith, it was Charlotte’s “centralized approach to reform” that explained those amazing score gains; according to Finder, Raleigh’s integration plan had caused the jumps. Neither man noted the fact that the gains had occurred all over the state. In each case, we were told that a local practice explained a statewide phenomenon.

Back to that PBS web site: At the time, we noted that the score gains cited in that highlighted passage didn’t match the official data released by the state of North Carolina. (Sound familiar?) Today, we finally saw where those (inaccurate) data came from. We’d have to say that Smith and his team got badly tooken—by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools! Again, basic fact-checking didn’t occur. But then, that’s the shape of modern “journalism” at the highest levels.

Tomorrow, we’ll run through this all-too-familiar story. Does anyone check essential facts at these nose-bleed journalistic levels?

Are North Carolina’s score gains real: Over the course of the past dozen years, scores have gone up all over North Carolina—on the state’s own tests. But uh-oh! Results have been different on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the widely-accepted “gold standard” of testing. We’ll discuss this matter in more detail tomorrow or Thursday, as we review de Vise’s report about Maryland’s recent score gains. But we reviewed this problem in that post about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/17/05. This should have been studied long ago by the nation’s major journalists.