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RACE AND THE RACE (PART 1)! It’s the law! When the Times considers race, it includes at least one bungled fact: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, AUGUST 12, 2008

COKIE’S VACATION PLANNING: At TPM, David Kurtz called her observations “mind-numbingly banal.” If anything, he was being too kind. For the record, let’s memorialize Cokie’s vacation planning. From Sunday morning’s This Week:

ROBERTS (8/10/08): [Obama] has certainly come nowhere near closing the deal. As we've talked about before, in this year that should be such a Democratic year, given all the other indices, he is tied in the polls in—stateside, in the polls—and going off this week to vacation in Hawaii does not make any sense whatsoever. I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii. And I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach and—you know, if he's going to take a vacation at this time. And I just think that this is not the time to do that.

She knows Hawaii’s a state! For the record, candidates have routinely vacationed in the summer of election years. They’ve sometimes done so during the other party’s convention, but the conventions come quite late this year.

It’s always hard to capture the know-it-all tone of this particular arbiter of all things Inside Washington. (To watch the tape, just click here.) That said, we thought two points were worth making about Cokie’s vacation planning remarks—the very first statement she offered the world during Sunday’s program.

First, Obama wasn’t “tied in the polls” as the doyenne spoke. At RealClear Politics, he was leading by an average of 4.4 points. (Today, the lead is 4.8 points.) And no, standard “margin of error” doesn’t apply to an average of polls. Polls can be wrong in a whole lot of ways. But Obama wasn’t and isn’t “tied.” At present, Obama’s “ahead.”

More annoyingly:

For years, pundits like Roberts have rolled their eyes about the way the deeply phony Bill Clinton once polled his family’s summer vacation. Just last week, Lisa Wangsness recalled this very bad character episode in the Boston Globe:

WANGSNESS (8/4/08): In what became a symbol of his poll-driven presidency, in 1995 and 1996 President Clinton famously replaced his beloved annual sojourn to Martha's Vineyard with a trip to another tourist mecca, Jackson, Wyo., after his pollster, Dick Morris, insisted swing voters prefer hiking, according to Morris's memoir, "Behind the Oval Office." The president, Morris wrote, unhappily obliged, though he spent as much time as possible on the golf course.

It was a famous symbol! Back then, everyone trashed big phony Bill Clinton because he didn’t vacation in the place he preferred. Now, Obama vacations in the place he prefers, and Cokie pops up with a better idea: He should have consulted the polls!

But then, this is the way this banal cohort has long made a joke of your discourse. We have one small complaint about David Kurtz’s post; he says, “This is the sort of mind-numbingly banal observation that passes for political analysis these days” (our emphasis). In fact, this banality has driven our discourse for years—for well over a decade. Progressives shouldn’t miss the chance to tell voters: This has gone on for a very long time. It’s time for these losers to go.

Banality, fall-of-2000 style: On October 22, 2000, world history hung in the balance. But so what? For a taste of Cokie’s banality on that crucial day, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/8/06. Two words: Dingell and Norwood.

How they get so banal: Yesterday, searching for that old profile of Mike Wallace, we stumbled upon another old piece by Howard Kurtz—a piece about Cokie’s big money. The piece was adapted from Hot Air, Kurtz’s 1995 book about pundit gasbags. It appeared in the Washington Post. (This is Howard Kurtz, not David.)

With surprising candor, Kurtz discussed Cokie’s mid-90s buck-raking. This was big money back in the day, more than twelve years ago:

HOWARD KURTZ (1/21/96): [Sam] Donaldson has plenty of company in the yakking for dollars line. William Safire, the New York Times columnist and frequent "Meet the Press" panelist, takes in $20,000 a speech. Cokie Roberts's fee is at least $20,000; the ABC and National Public Radio correspondent and commentator is estimated to have earned $300,000 from speechifying in a single year. Mike Wallace fetches at least $25,000 a speech...

The formula for journalistic buckraking is simple and obvious: Get yourself on television and the corporate money will find you. Margaret Carlson, a Time columnist, says her speaking fee doubled (to about $10,000) after she became a weekly member of "The Capital Gang." "I just got on the gravy train, so I don't want it to end," she said before Time barred its staffers from accepting corporate speaking fees last year. Her Time colleague, Hugh Sidey, who once made up to 50 speeches a year, says his lecture income shriveled when he stopped appearing regularly on the now-defunct "Agronsky & Company."

"If you want to make enough money, you have to do television," says Jack Germond, the Baltimore Sun columnist and resident grouch on "The McLaughlin Group." ". . .If you're on one of these shows and then you're off, in six months your lecture money is gone."

Uh-oh! That sort of thing was bad enough, but Kurtz tattle-taled like the worst of class traitors in his actual book. What became of the guy who wrote what follows? Twelve years later, this reads like a dispatch from a different, lost world:

KURTZ (pages 205-206): The spectacle of pundits pocketing large sums for little work raises another, equally insidious problem: They lose touch with the vast majority of their audience. Many are now in income brackets that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, before the unholy union of journalism and televised entertainment. Although the pontificators vehemently deny it, this privileged status invariably skews their view of the world. They are part of the moneyed class, just like the people they report on.

When President Clinton raised income taxes on the wealthiest one percent of taxpayers in 1993, most of the talking heads took a hit. They were personally affected by a policy that had no effect on most Americans. This may have contributed to the widespread misimpression, confirmed in poll after poll, that Clinton had raised taxes on the middle class. If taxes have gone up for you and all your friends, it’s easy to get the idea that just about everyone is paying more.

Much of that was speculative, of course. But good God! Can anyone remember the world in which Kurtz wrote copy like that? Today, Kurtz writes very different books—books in which he helps multimillionaires like Brian Williams tell you how much they love shopping at Target. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/6/08; scroll down to“Gallatin chic.” For the first three parts of our series on Kurtz and Williams, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/07.)

Please don’t make us show you—again—the house where Tim Russert summered.

Progressives should tell the public two things: These people have made a joke of your discourse—and many of them are exceptionally wealthy. We would assume those two things go together. Kurtz once believed the same way.

Third and fourth things progressives might mention: Third thing: Today’s big pundits work quite hard to keep you from knowing about their wealth. Fourth thing: Many young “career liberal” pundits may have their eyes on that wealth too.

About that old McCain profile: We know—we owe you that 1999 McCain profile, by that local Arizona reporter. We’ll post it by the end of the week. Sorry—it’s not on-line.

Special report: Race and the race!

PART 1—FIRST, YOU BUNGLE: It’s hard for people to understand how unimpressive the mainstream press really is. “Bias” is one thing in reporting and punditry—but ineptitude is another. To wit:

In Saturday’s New York Times, a statistic was prominently featured in Charles Blow’s op-ed column—a statistic which is (take your pick) either wrong or grossly misleading. (In April, Blow became the Times’ “visual Op-Ed columnist.” His columns appear on alternate Saturdays.) We were struck by his mistake, partly because his topic is so important, partly because the mighty Times can’t seem to stop bungling basic data when discussing this general area:

BLOW (8/9/08): Whites represent 85 percent of registered voters, so their attitudes about race could prove to be pivotal in the presidential election.

That statement is part of the graphic which accompanies Blow’s piece (just click here). It was prominently featured on Saturday’s op-ed page. For the record, the statistic is wrong.

“Whites represent 85 percent of registered voters?” That number seems to be wrong, unless you lump Hispanics in with whites, an unusual practice which wasn’t followed in the New York Times/CBS poll from which Blow derived the rest of his data. According to this official report from the Census Bureau, 78 percent of registered voters were non-Hispanic whites in 2004. (111 million out of 142 million. See Table B, page 4.). The same percentage obtained in 2006 for the congressional elections. (107 million out of 136 million total. Click here, see Table 2, page 4.)

Actually, no—whites don’t represent 85 percent of registered voters. In fairness, Blow’s error doesn’t contradict or negate anything he says or implies in his piece; it doesn’t negate his critical claim that “race could prove to be pivotal in the presidential election” this year. But a basic question came to mind when we looked at this latest error: Does the New York Times ever get its basic facts right when discussing a serious topic like race?

After all, consider this:

Dowd does visceral prejudice: In that recent New York Times/CBS News poll (click here), 31 percent of white voters expressed a favorable view of Obama. In the same poll, 35 percent of white voters expressed a favorable view of McCain. Nothing about those data should have been surprising or shocking; in contemporary politics, white voters typically favor the Republican White House candidate. (Among all voters, Obama led McCain in the poll, 45-39.) But how did Maureen Dowd handle those data? Simple! In her column, she omitted McCain’s low “favorable” rating—then claimed that Obama’s low favorable rating represented “visceral racial prejudice.” (She threw in Obama’s high ratings among blacks, thus creating a meaningless contrast. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/5/08). It would be hard to bungle simple data more perfectly. Simple data about our most important political/cultural topic.

Then too, consider this:

Bazelon does striking improvements: In a recent New York Times magazine piece, Emily Bazelon reported on educational progress in Wake County, North Carolina—one of the nation’s largest school systems. This is a very important topic. But Bazelon presented these basic data—data she bungled:

BAZELON (7/20/08): Wake County adopted class-based integration with the hard-nosed goal of raising test scores. The strategy was simple: no poor schools, no bad schools. And indeed, the district has posted striking improvements in the test scores of black and low-income students: in 1995, only 40 percent of the black students in Wake County in the third through eighth grades scored at grade level in state reading tests; by last year, the rate had almost doubled, to 82.5 percent. Statewide scores for black students also got better over the same time period, but not by as much.

In fact, that “40 percent” figure was simply wrong, according to official state data; the actual figure should have been 51.6 percent. (North Carolina officials have told us that they stand behind the official data on the state’s education web site. Bazelon said she got the lower figure from an Ohio State researcher.) And in fact, “scores for black students got better over the same time period” by almost exactly as much “statewide” as they did in Wake County—Bazelon’s suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding. Bazelon urged New York Times readers to think that Wake County’s particular policies had produced the “striking improvements” in question—“striking improvements” she’d in fact overstated, “striking improvements” which had been matched statewide. In fact, her statistical work had been bungled—again. (In September 2005, a front-page report in the Sunday Times had made the same types of statistical bungles.)

Dowd and Bazelon bungled simple statistics. Now, we get Blow talking about race and racism—and he (and his editors) can’t even report the most basic fact about voter registration. Hence the vast discontent that swept through our analysts’ ranks when they first glanced at Blow’s piece.

But then, Blow asked a question of giant importance: Could racial voting by some white voters change the outcome of November’s election? In Saturday’s piece, Blow started with a bungled statistic—but this seems to be the law at the Times. Things got somewhat better from there. And his topic is very important.

As Blow notes, this is a difficult topic to poll. But it’s also a critical topic—a topic that’s well worth discussing. Tomorrow, we’ll start to review the rest of Blow’s stats. You can decide how well he handled the data—those he chose to include, and those he chose to leave out.

TOMORROW—PART 2: The 5 percent confession.

Discourse on method: We’ve e-mailed Blow twice about that statistic. So far, no reply.