19 January 2000
Our current howler (part II): Wrong from the start
Synopsis: We human beings dont reason real well. But dont trust uslook in the papers.
The Simple Solution
Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times Magazine 1/9/00
Editorial, The New Republic, 1/24/00
McCain Urged F.C.C. Action On Issue Involving Supporter
Stephen Labaton, The New York Times, 1/6/00
McCain Defends FCC Letter
Susan Glasser and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 1/6/00
A Misstep by Mr. McCain
Editorial, The Washington Post, 1/7/00
How poorly do we humans reason? It's a transparent part of
our natural history; the fact is, we reason quite poorly.
From Socrates, at the dawn of the west, to Wittgenstein, in the
century just passed, the fact that our hardy band doesn't reason
real well has been rather frequently noted. Socrates looked for
ways to keep "the weaker argument from defeating the stronger;"
Wittgenstein talked about the "battle against the bewitchment
of our intelligence by means of language." But it's been
commonly noticed throughout western history: we humans are easily
But at a time of great technological progress, it's
easy to forget our logical shortfall. And the celebrity press
corps blathers away as if it hasn't heard of this ongoing mess.
But don't believe us when we tell you this; read the start
of Sullivan's article. He opens with a personal note on why he
finds the flat tax attractive:
SULLIVAN: I suppose I first developed a fondness for the flat
tax when Jerry Brown and Steve Forbes supported it. It had that
energizing right-left whiplash I've rarely been able to resist...
In current political writing, this cheeky tone almost always
signals that chaos is lurking nearby. Sure enough, the rest of
Sullivan's opening paragraph is drenched in conceptual confusion:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): But these days, not only the
fringes of political life support it. This year, every Republican
candidate but oneAlan Keyes-supports a version of flatness and
even the cautious George W. backs simpler, lower rates. One of
Al Gore's core strengths against Bill Bradley is that he is less
likely to raise taxes than his more liberal rival. Compared with
25 years ago, when pre-Reagan tax rates clobbered anyone even
faintly successful, or even 16 years ago, when Walter Mondale
quixotically campaigned for a fiscal hike, the tax climate may
not be flat but it's flatter.
It's quite clear from this passage that Sullivan identifies
the "flat tax" with lowered taxation. But a "flat
tax" is a single-rate tax, without deductions, where "everyone
is treated the same," Sullivan says. Nothing about this tells
us where the rate of taxation will be set. Sullivan himself doesn't
say in this article where he would set his single rate, or whether
he would intend for his "flat" tax to bring in less
revenue than the current tax code. A "flat tax" can
be designed to lower federal revenues, but this goal is no way
implied by the concept. Meanwhile, is Gore less likely to raise
taxes than Bradley? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't really know,
but even if he is so inclined, that doesn't make his policies
"flatter." We know of nothing about Gore's proposals
is especially "flat." Meanwhile, Bradley's principal
Senate achievement was the 1986 tax code reform, which lowered
top rates and dropped deductionswhich did make the tax
code more "flat." Bush does in fact propose lowering
revenue, but there is nothing about his plan that is "flat;"
he would lower the top current rate, but he wants to lower the
bottom rate too, so the spread of tax rates in his code would
be no more narrow than at present. This articlestarting with
paragraph oneis simply riddled with conceptual confusion, and
yet it appears in one of our most prestigious publications. The
cheeky tonematched with the logical errorsis typical of our
current press culture, in which vibrant personality is always
allowed to stand in for technical rigor.
What is most striking about this piece? The fact that Sullivan
is smart. Again, this is the type of work that is often
done by our smart writers, in our most admired publications.
How can THE HOWLER's vision be accurate? How can our discourse
be so bad? In part, it's because we humans reason very
poorlyalthough to all appearances it has quite a while
since the celebrity press corps considered that fact, or attempted
to take the simplest measures to guard against the chaos we're
But there is another slight shortfall in human functioning
first noticed by the ancients. We human beings have another small
problemon occasion, we're not all that honest. Socrates
said that sophists would use their skills to make weaker arguments
defeat the strongerand our analysts see the occasional sign that
the syndrome still lingers today. In fact, a recent moment on
the inventive show Hardball brought our scholars out of
their chairs. They didn't know whether to laugh or to cry as they
saw ancient patterns re-enacted.
Tomorrow: Sometimes, pundits aren't all that honest.
We look in on a tabloid talker.
The power to spin: Our analysts came out of their
chairs last night as they perused the current TNR "Notebook."
This time they were cheering the magazine on, for its comments
on recent McCain coverage:
THE NEW REPUBLIC: By now, most sensible commentators realize
that the "scandal" of John McCain's letter asking the
Federal Communications Commission to make a decision (not decide
a certain way, mind you, simply make a decision) about one of
his contributors is no scandal at all. Members of Congress do
worse every day. So why did the New York Times play it on page
one, dignifying it for other papers and the TV networks? We don't
know, but it's in character...
"Notebook" goes on to claim that the Times' McCain
coverage has been "relentlessly hostile."
We don't really agree with that last assessment, but we think
that "Notebook" understates the problems with
the FCC coverage. TNR notes that McCain didn't ask the
FCC to "decide a certain way." In our view, that's putting
it mildly. McCain's December 10 letter was five paragraphs long.
Here are his final two paragraphs:
MCCAIN TO FCC (12/10):
The sole purpose of this letter is to secure final action on a
matter that has now been pending for over two years. I emphasize
that my purpose is not to suggest in any way how you should votemerely
that you should vote. In order to assure that no oral or ex patre
communications on the merits of these applications take place,
I will not entertain any oral responses of any kind to this letter.
This letter is not written to obtain favorable disposition
of any matter on behalf of any party to any proceeding before
the commission. Please treat this letter in compliance with all
applicable substantive and procedural rules.
McCain explicitly "emphasized" that he wasn't recommending
a particular outcome. But here's how the Times paraphrased McCain,
early on in its page-one story:
LABATON: The letters did not tell the commissioners how
to vote on the license transfers, which had been in a regulatory
abyss for more than two years as community groups fought over
the matter and enlisted a variety of lawmakers to lobby on their
behalf. Nonetheless, the letters prompted an unusual response
from the chairman of the F.C.C., suggesting that they were inappropriate.
And other officials said the tone of the letters made it clear
to them that Mr. McCain wanted the deal approved, even if he did
not say so explicitly.
We think this paragraph offers a striking account of McCain's
FCC letter. It would have been perfectly easy, in Labaton's first
sentence, to quote what McCain really said. Labaton could have
LABATON REWRITE: In his December 10 letter, McCain "emphasized"
that "my purpose is not to suggest in any way how [the FCC]
should vote" on the license transfers, which had been in
a regulatory abyss for more than two years.
Times readers would have seen McCain's actual words; instead,
they got a watered-down paraphrase. Meanwhile, Labaton gives substantial
space to an anonymous claim that "the tone" of McCain's
letter "made it clear" that he did in fact want
the deal approved. We think that claim about "tone"
is hard to defend; McCain says exactly the opposite. But
Labaton's reader has no way to know that; he hasn't been shown
what McCain really said.
The New York Timeson an inside pagedid print the full text
of McCain's letter. An assiduous reader could go inside and see
what McCain really said. But in Labaton's page-one account, he
chooses not to quote McCain, substituting his own account,
and that of an FCC spinner.
But Labaton wasn't the only one who chose not to quote the
solon. Here's how the Post's Glasser and Balz explained what McCain
GLASSER AND BALZ: His letter, McCain said, carefully steered
clear of urging approval of the Paxson deal, and his campaign
later said it had found about 20 similar McCain requests from
the past few years demanding faster action by the FCC on various
His letter "steered clear of urging approval?" That
would have been an accurate account of the letter's first three
paragraphs. But in the next two paragraphs, McCain went further,
explicitly "emphasizing" that he wasn't urging approval
or rejection. Once again, we call for Rewrite:
GLASSER/BALZ REWRITE: In McCain's letter, he explicitly "emphasized"
that he "did not suggest in any way how [the FCC] should
That would have been a more accurate account than the paraphrase
which the Post published. By the way, the Post did not
reprint McCain's letter. The Balz/Glasser paraphrase is the reader's
only way to know what McCain really said.
A final dreary note on this matterhere is the opening of a
lead editorial the Post wrote on this subject:
THE WASHINGTON POST: Sen. John McCain badly overstepped the
rules, or what ought to be the rules, in intervening with the
Federal Communications Commission in a licensing case in which
a major campaign contributor had a multimillion-dollar interest.
It was plain, despite the boiler plate disclaimers he put in
his letters, that he was writing on behalf of a particular outcome.
It's hard to defend this presentation. In those "boiler
plate disclaimers," McCain had explicitly "emphasized"
to the FCC that he wasn't "writing on behalf of a
particular outcome." But Post readers had no way to know
that. The paper had never quoted McCain, instead telling readers
a story it liked.
We see this endlessly from the press corps; scribes choose
to paraphrase rather than quote, even when the language in question
is quite short and could be easily quoted. When public figures
are being accused of wrong-doing, they are owed the courtesy of
quotation. None of these three accounts quoted McCainand all
three accounts, for whatever reason, watered down what McCain