ALL ABOUT THE GIRL! Clinton was in Africa, working on AIDS. So naturally, the Times thought of Monica: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, AUGUST 29, 2006
ERRING ON THE SIDE OF ERROR: Were often amazed when major reporters try to explain the concept of margin of error. And uh-oh! In Sundays Times, Jack Rosenthal—president of The New York Times Company Foundation and a senior editor of The Times for 26 years—wrote an entire column explaining how polling actually works. (He was subbing for public editor Byron Calame, off on a well-earned vacation.) Soon enough, Rosenthal got around to the topic of sampling error. Quickly, he served up this groaner:
ROSENTHAL (8/27/06): For a typical election sample of 1,000, the error rate is plus or minus three percentage points for each candidate, meaning that a 50-50 race could actually differ by 53 to 47.Yes, that statement is technically accurate. If such a poll comes up 50-50, its possible that Candidate A is actually leading, 53-47. But then, Candidate A could also be leading by 54-46—or by 57-43, for that matter. Rosenthal seemed to imply that the actual margin cant exceed six points. This is, of course, wildly wrong.
No, we arent planning to hash this all out, but weve long marveled at this sort of bungling. Similarly, journalists often grab our attention when they traffic in margin of error (and its near-relations). For example, here was Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the next days Times, discussing Bush and Katrina:
STOLBERG (8/28/06): [Bushs] approval ratings have never rebounded from their post-hurricane plummet. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this month found that 51 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the way Mr. Bush had responded to the needs of hurricane victims, a figure statistically no different from last September, when 48 percent disapproved.How many readers could say exactly what Stolberg meant by the highlighted statement—when she said that Bushs current 51 percent disapproval was statistically no different from the earlier 48? Well guess that very few readers could say—and well guess that Stolberg might flail a bit too. Well tell you one thing: If you were managing Bushs career, you wouldnt be thrilled with that three-point change. Youd know that it might not mean a durned thing—that his actual approval might not have changed. But then again, youd also know that the odds ran against that.
By the way: Reporters can be very selective in the way they apply the concept of statistical significance. In this case, Stolberg remembered to invoke the concept—in a context where it was helpful to Bush. But not long ago, Bushs overall approval jumped from 36 to 37—and many news orgs just played it straight. Omigod! Bush had experienced a bump, these news orgs rushed off to declare.
ALL ABOUT THE GIRL: Truly, what a revealing profile of the heart and soul of the modern press corps! In todays Times, Celia Dugger writes a long, intriguing, front-page report about Bill Clintons work on AIDS in Africa. She considers Clintons record as president—and his work on the issue in the years that have followed. Clinton plays a unique role in shining a light on the problem, Bill Gates says at one point in the piece. But omigod! Early on, Dugger cant help herself. Early in an informative piece, Dugger is found typing this:
DUGGER (8/30/06): [O]n this trip, Mr. Clinton seemed anything but a man tormented by guilt. Rather, he reveled in his role as a private citizen championing people with AIDS.Clinton was busting his ass about AIDS. But to Dugger, the question just had to be asked. What did all this say about Monica? Cant we get back to The Girl?
But then, for the empty souls of our mainstream press corps, it has always been All About Monica—theres never been anything else on their minds. And yes, this has changed human history. For example, why did they wage that War Against Gore—the war which sent George Bush to the White House? As early as June 1999, Howard Kurtz was asking major scribes about the pounding they were handing to Candidate Gore. Heres what one big scribe told him:
KURTZ (6/25/99): The tone of the early interviews [with Candidate Gore] is revealing. While the vice president has stressed specifics, such as improving education and health care for the elderly and curbing suburban sprawl, the media have pursued other subjects....They were going to make Gore jump through the hoops until he said what they longed to hear about Monica. (Fuller text below.) But then, for these empty souls, it has always been All About Monica. When Gore discussed health care, they thought about Monica. When Clinton works on AIDS in Africa, that reminds them of Monica too.
These empty, empty, fatuous souls simply cant get her out of their heads! Eight years later, she still haunts their dreams. Why is Monica in todays article? For the same reason we find ourselves in Iraq. We live in an age of fatuous souls. As Mandy Grunwald said long ago, its all about The Girl. Thats all these people really understand; theyll trick her into every story. Are people suffering—and recovering—in Africa? Yes, they are—and thats a great story. But first, they must bring up The Girl.
CLINTONS REPLY: Its pointless to try to speak to these souls. But God bless him! Bill Clinton tried:
DUGGER: ''The reason I do this work I do is that I really care about politics and people and public policy,'' he said in one of several interviews, scornfully dismissing questions about whether his global AIDS work is a form of redemption for what he failed to accomplish on the issue as president, or for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.Make no mistake. We actually are in Iraq today because of their obsession with Monica. Even today, she haunts their dreams! In 1999, when Gores race began, they could think of nothing, no one else.
TODAYS FRONT PAGE OF THE TIMES: Why does the Ramsey case share todays front page with Mo? Duh. All About The Girl.
WARREN WAS TROUBLED BY ALL THE SCUM TOO: In his standard circuitous manner, Jim Warren also told Kurtz that the press was beating on Gore due to Clinton. Here is the fuller text from which the previous excerpt was taken:
KURTZ (6/25/99): The tone of the early interviews is revealing. While the vice president has stressed specifics, such as improving education and health care for the elderly and curbing suburban sprawl, the media have pursued other subjects.Poor babies—they were sort of bored. But Monica? She made them feel alive.
Meanwhile, why was Schieffer so deeply troubled? Gore had given similar answers to all three nets when they asked him about Darling Monica! Schieffer, playing his standard Nice Guy, told Kurtz he was troubled by that.