WEAK AND UNPRACTICED! The New York Times seems out of shape when it tries to debunk a false tale: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2008
The joy of interconnection: As we said yesterday:
We said that before the Blagojevich story produced such joy on cable.
And yes, it was joy all over cable last night, as many providers clowned and played about the amusing story. We thought Rachel Maddow was the worst we saw, but many others engaged in the evenings tomfoolery. Is there a presumption of innocence in our culture? A healthy respect for the word allegation? A healthy skepticism toward the possibility that prosecutorseven well-intentioned prosecutorscan err, overreach, self-promote, over-dramatize? Not in the culture we looked at last night! Joy returned to cable last night, as pundits got to clown and playand assume that every word theyd been told was wonderfully, perfectly accurate. Good God! Maddow even sat silent when Michael Isikoff blathered in this ludicrous fashion, in response to her very first question:
For the record, that was exceptionally reckless talk by Isikoff, especially the parts about Jarrett and Emmanuel. But Maddow just sat there and took it. After all, she was already chirpingly upset about this bit of conduct:
Well yes, he did have to say it like that, or he would have sounded like all the clowns holding forth on cable last night. And as usual, Maddow had to show the world how amusing and adorable she is. (Did you ever dream that MSNBC could produce a pro-Democratic intellectual mess to match the anti-Democratic mess it staged for all those years?) Maddow was grinning and clowning for her fans at that pointbut a few moments later, she rolled and died when Isikoff made that remarkable statement about those interconnections. Why, Emmanuel succeeded Blagojevich in the Congress! As weve all seen in the past, thats the way a chump like Isikoff can create a world of interconnections. And Maddow took it like a tool. After all, Mikeys part of the team!
For our money, Fitzgerald and his overheated aides ought to get over themselves just a tad. It isnt part of their job description to imagine what Lincoln has done in his grave, or to thunder about where Illinois ranks among the fifty worst states. But the mess last night on cable TV was a real mess to behold. The children were wonderfully happy again. Theyd been handed a framework for their jokes and their winksfor their garbage on interconnections.
The word alleged was AWOL last night. So was anything that even resembled normal press corps decorum. You live in a world of jokes and gamesof the interconnections that come steaming up from those who have killed you before. These games were long played against Clinton, then Gore. Will Maddow be content with her self-adoring jokes as they start getting played once again?
Weak and unpracticed: One thing didnt magically change with Barack Obamas election: Despite claims that the nation was perhaps moving left, it has remained remarkably easy for groups from the right to invent bogus facts and use them to drive our nations debates.
Bogus, absurd, inane or false claims relentlessly drove our public debates during the Clinton/Gore/Bush/Clinton era. (Al Gore said he invented the Internet! The US has the best health care in the world!) Well uh-oh! One more such fact took center stage soon after Obamas big win.
On page one of todays New York Times, we get an idea why its so easy for such facts to gain prominence. Unfortunately, we get schooled on this problem as we watch the hapless Times attempt to rebut this fake fact. Alas! As the Times attempts to shoot down a false fact, we see the remarkable lack of skill and determination our press elites bring to such efforts.
To its credit, the Times seems to be trying to shoot down this fake fact. But thats where the problem begins.
The front-page report was penned by David Leonhardtand Leonhardt chose a worthy target. Indeed, the bogus fact the scribe confronts has been widely driven within the press corps during the current debate about the Big Threes problems. If you stick with Leonhardt long enough, he finally gives you a gruesome example of the press corps utter incompetence. In paragraph 15 (out of 25), Leonhardt records CNNs Wolf Blitzer fronting a groaning misstatement:
Jesus, thats awful! As Leonhardt semi-explains in his piece, that $73/hour versus $48/hour is simply wrongits bogus, fake, false, inaccurate. And yet, the comparison has been all over the press corps, driving the claim that greedy unions and overpaid workers are the source of the Big Threes woes.
At Media Matters, you can see the graphic to which Leonhardt refers, with Blitzer propped on a stool before it (just click here). Meanwhile, the claim this graphic seems to make is, simply put, simply wrong. But so what? Relentlessly, citizens have heard variants of this claim: Unionized Big Three workers make a gaudy $73 per hour, while their non-unionized counterparts at Japanese-owned US car plants make something like $48. That claim is bogus, fake, falseflatly wrong. But it has been widely pimped since Obamas election, like so many other false claims in the decades which have slipped past.
Why is it so easy to produceand prosper fromsuch false claims? Partly because of the lack of skill possessed by your upper-end press corps! This brings us back to Leonhardts pieceand to the headlines and graphics his editors have haplessly used to adorn it.
Lets be fair: If you read Leonhardts piece with care, you can derive the basic facts. According to Leonhardt, Big Three workers receive something like $55 per hour in salary and benefits, compared to something like $45 per hour for their non-unionized counterparts in Japanese-owned American plants. Unfortunately, Leonhardts presentation of this basic fact comes in the midst of a much longer, much more complex presentation. But just for the record, here it isLeonhardts paragraph 13, out of 25 total:
After making a largely irrelevant comparison, Leonhardt finally make the one he calls more relevant. Counting wages and benefits, Detroits unionized workers make roughly $55 per hour, he says. Their non-unionized counterparts at Toyota and Honda make roughly $45.
So there you see the basic facts, midway through a long report. Those are the facts which give the lie to Blitzers inexcusable groaner. So yesif you read Leonhardts piece with care, youll finally get an accurate comparison. And youll be told that some news sources (Blitzer is the lone example) have been making a bogus presentationone which massively overstates the actual auto pay gap.
But what if you dont read the article carefully? What if you glance at the headlines and the graphics? What if you skim what Leonhardt has said, as many readers may do? Readers like that may be misled by Leonhardts work, and by that of his editors. The headlines are bad; the graphic is gruesome; and Leonhardt has vastly down-played his lead. The public is being misinformed once again! But the New York Times doesnt seem up to the task addressing this long-standing problem.
Start with the most gruesome part of this piecethe graphic which appears on page A23. (Click here, then click on Multimedia.) You have to be a hopeless incompetent to illustrate Leonhardts piece with a graphic like that. In theory, Leonhardt is trying to debunk the claim that Ford workers are paid much more than their Japanese counterparts. But thats precisely the notion a reader will get from a glance at this graphic! If you read the full text of the graphic with care, you may see Leonhardts point reinforced. But duh! Many readers have already heard, incorrectly, that Fords workers are paid much more than Toyotas. Such readers will likely glance at that graphic and have this false notion reinforced.
Good God! The real comparison is 55/45, Leonhardt finally says. But in the graphic, its 71-49! Only in the New York Times does such hapless conduct occur.
The graphic is therefore amazingly badbut the front-page headlines are quite bad too. What is the basic theme of this piece? The public has been handed some misinformation! But would you have grasped that key idea from reading the front-page headlines?
Uh-oh! Readers who have already heard the bogus $73 an hour statistic may actually find it reinforced by that larger, principal headline; they may think that Leonhardt is simply adding up where that high figure comes from. (For the record, many readers will look at these headlines without ever reading the story.) Meanwhile, the secondary headline is hopelessly weak; the pay gap isnt less than it may seem, its less than what many big news orgs have said. If an editor wanted to capture the actual story, that headline should say something much more direct. An editor who cared about assaults on our discourse might have offered headlines like this:
If an editor was disturbed by the specter of fake/bogus claims, he would get off his fat, frightened keister and headline this problem for readers.
The problems with the headlines and the graphic can be laid at the feet of Times editors. In fairness, though, wed have to say that Leonhardt himself seems a bit reluctant to tell the key story. Its true: If you carefully read his full piece, you may come to see that a fake, bogus claim has been driving the discourse. But in the manner decreed by the gods, Leonhardt refuses to drive this central point, in which one side is right and the other side wrong. Even as he opens his piece, he forces an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand framework onto his presentation. These are his opening paragraphs:
That statistic is bogus, as well eventually see. But in paragraph two, the bogus statistic becomes a neat encapsulation of everything thats wrong with bloated car companies and their entitled workersin the minds of the Big Threes critics, who seem to be working in perfect good faith! Were back in a familiar landthe land where reporters pretend that each side is making an equally sincere, valid point. Heres how Leonhardt continues as he starts to seek out the reality:
As always, both sides have to have valid points. Yes, the number is basically wrong. But the critics have to have good points too.
The various claims which Leonhardt makes in that passage may well be accurate. But by now, he has thrown so many claims into the stew that his basic claim is obscured. Do his readers deserve to be told that the $73-per-hour statistic is deeply bogus? Theyll have to fight their way to page A23 to study the real comparison. Meanwhile, heres how Leonhardt frames the debate when the rubber finally hits the road. This is the soul of your modern press corps, of scribes with tails between legs:
Sorrythats awful. As Leonhardt himself will eventually show, that number has been relentlessly used to misinform people about this problem. But before he dares tell readers that, he seems to feel that he must vouch for the good faith of the people who invented the number. The number isnt made up, he saysand he seems to vouch for the calculations which produced it. Its like pulling teeth to get these guys to give the public the basic fact: Youre being played for fools again. The press has been feeding you bull-roar.
Does the public ever deserve to be told that theyre being misinformed? Leonhardt seems reluctant to tell themand his editors muck matters up worse. And yet, this is the type of work we get on the rare occasion when the upper-end press corps actually tries to correct a false factual claim. This sad effort represents the best an org like the New York Times can produce.
The public has been fed a string of bogus claims over the course of the past many years. Why does the Times seem reluctant to say so? Why does the newspaper seem so unskilled at so basic a task? Why does the Times clutter up such a piece with so many extraneous points? Why does it feel it has to vouch for data which have been used to misinform us?
The public has long been deceived by false claimsand yet the Times seems weak and unpracticed when it tries debunking such tales. Just a thought: Could that be because so many false claims have come from the Times itself?