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27 April 2001

Our current howler (part II): Times table

Synopsis: When the Times goofs up, they goof up good. Professor Butterfield recently demonstrated. (Extra: Fox All-Stars do Vietnam!)

Victims’ Race Affects Decisions On Killers’ Sentence, Study Finds
Fox Butterfield, The New York Times, 4/20/01

Maybe TNR’s Gregg Easterbrook has just been spoiled. Working with a high-octane import like Andrew "Doc" Sullivan, perhaps he simply doesn’t grasp how bad things can get where the other half lives. No, we just couldn’t find the heavy spin which he said he had seen in Gotham’s Times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/26/01). And as all good HOWLER readers know, when the Times screws up, it really screws up. You don’t have to imagine the problems.

Take, for example, Fox Butterfield’s piece in last Friday’s Times. The paper was off on its race chase again. Headline? "Victims’ Race Affects Decisions On Killers’ Sentence, Study Finds." Here’s how the story began:

BUTTERFIELD (pgh 1): A study of death penalty cases in North Carolina in the 1990’s has found that the odds of getting a death sentence increased three and a half times if the victim was white rather than black.

Wow! Butterfield claimed a very large difference. If you killed a white person, he said, you were much more likely to get the death penalty than you were if your victim was black. But here’s the odd part—Butterfield wrote a seven-paragraph story, accompanied by a detailed chart. And nothing—repeat, nothing—in the story or chart in any way backed up his thesis.

Butterfield’s second paragraph was mainly a quote lamenting that dreadful disparity. In paragraph 3, data happened. Here is what Buuterfield wrote:

BUTTERFIELD (3): The study examined all 3,990 homicide cases in North Carolina from 1993 to 1997. Of the cases in which a death sentence was possible, 11.6 percent of nonwhite defendants charged with murdering white victims were sentenced to death. In contrast, 6.1 percent of whites charged with murdering whites and 4.7 percent of nonwhites charged with murdering nonwhites received the death penalty. In North Carolina, the nonwhite category generally refers to blacks and some Hispanics.

Note one thing about Butterfield’s article. His opening paragraph talks about white versus black. But all his data employ a different grid—the data compare white with "nonwhite," which he says includes black and some Hispanics. Alas—Butterfield never gives any info about penalties given to killers of "blacks." And maybe that explains the obvious problem, because nowhere in this article does he provide any data that define a disparity like the one he describes.

In fact, paragraph 3 is the only place in the article where Butterfield gives any data at all. And note a problem with what he provides. One thing is clear in the cases being studied—when nonwhites killed whites, they were more likely to get the death penalty than anyone got for killing nonwhites. But there are two obvious problems. First, the differences don’t begin to approach Butterfield’s "three and a half times more" standard. Second, his data are oddly incomplete. We know what happens 1) when whites murder whites, and 2) when whites murder nonwhites. And he tells us what happens 3) when nonwhites kill whites. But he doesn’t say what happens when nonwhites kill nonwhites—and he doesn’t give us the global figures for "killers of whites" versus "killers of nonwhites." The figures are broken down into smaller groups, arranged not only by the race of the victims, but by the race of the killers.

The good news? Butterfield’s graph contains more info. The bad news? It still ain’t enough. The data are still arranged "white" and "nonwhite," but at least the chart includes the missing fourth group: When whites killed nonwhites in North Carolina, 5.0 percent of those who were eligible for the death penalty actually went to the chair, the chart said. Here then are the chart’s complete data; for each subgroup, the chart included the number of killings which were eligible for the death penalty:

  1. When nonwhites killed whites: Out of 284 eligible cases, 11.6 percent got death
  2. When whites killed whites: Out of 541 eligible cases, 6.1 percent got death
  3. When whites killed nonwhites: Out of 80 eligible cases, 5.0 percent got death
  4. When nonwhites killed nonwhites: Out of 616 eligible cases, 4.7 percent got death

That is all the information provided in the chart.

Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that "nonwhite" is the same thing as "black." (There’s no way to tell, from Butterfield’s writing, if the two are meant to be interchangeable.) Alas! Even if we make that assumption, we still can’t evaluate Butterfield’s claim. Butterfield said that, in North Carolina, you’re treated far worse when you kill someone white. From these data, we can see that white people had it somewhat worse when they killed a white person (as opposed to when they killed a nonwhite), 6.1 percent to 5.0. And we can see that nonwhites had it substantially worse when they killed a white, 11.6 percent to 4.7. (Even this, of course, is nowhere near "three and a half times more." Three and a half times more than 4.7 would be 21.1 percent.) But Butterfield just talked about killing whites and killing blacks; he didn’t break things down into groups by the race of the killers. Alas—even his chart doesn’t give you the data that were relevant to his exciting claim.

But then, no one ever said that reading the New York Times would be easy. Our analysts quickly started ciphering. By doing some adding, we determined that there were 825 white people killed in which the death penalty was possible (284 plus 541). We determined there were 696 black people so killed (80 plus 616). But how many killers got the death penalty? Those percentages you have to figure out. By our calculations, we determined that 66 killings of whites resulted in the death penalty (11.6 percent of the 284 plus 6.1 percent of the 541). 33 killings of nonwhites resulted in death (5.0 percent of the 80 plus 4.7 percent of the 616). This results in the following figures, comparing penalties rendered for killing whites versus penalties for killing nonwhites:

  1. 825 killings of whites, 66 death penalties: 8.0 percent of killers of whites got the death penalty
  2. 696 killings of nonwhites, 33 death penalties: 4.7 percent of killers of nonwhites got the death penalty

According to those figures, a higher percentage of killers of whites did in fact get the death penalty. But the difference is nowhere near the "three and a half times more" described by Butterfield. Of course, we still don’t know if these numbers are even relevant, since our figures compare "white" and "nonwhite," while he spoke about "white" versus "black."

To get our outcome was really quite simple. We just took the data which the Times laid out, and we performed a wide variety of mathematical operations, taking us roughly half an hour. After all the work was done, we still weren’t sure if Butterfield’s statement was right. Question: Do you see how much fun a person can have when the Times churns out one of its nonpareil groaners? And do you see how pissy Easterbrook was, complaining about poor Douglas Jehl?

Final point of sheer amazement: Seven days after this piece appeared, it still bears no "correction" on Lexis-Nexis, and we can find no sign that any correction has appeared in the Times. Question: Can you really believe that no one noticed that this article makes no sense on earth?


The occasional update (4/27/00)

Combat Pilates: Let’s see if we have all this right:

  1. When Bill Clinton (legally) avoided service during Vietnam, that meant that he was a draft-dodger.
  2. When George W. Bush joined the Air National Guard, that meant he was avoiding Vietnam.
  3. When Al Gore went to Vietnam, it was wrong, because he was only an army journalist.
  4. When Bob Kerrey went to Vietnam and fought, that meant that he was a war criminal.

Phew! Luckily, the Fox All-Stars found a new vet to roast on Wednesday night’s Special Report. Brit Hume played old tape of John Kerry (long before he was a senator). Young Kerry was shown criticizing the Vietnam War before a congressional panel. It led to these remarks:

HUME: And when he was head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he participated in a very famous demonstration in which Medal of Honor winners and other Vietnam veterans threw medals up on the Capitol steps, and Senator Kerry threw what everyone at the time thought were his medals. It turned out they were somebody else’s medals. He threw only his ribbons and kept his medals.

But this is an issue that has arisen now and will arise again. What to make of this regarding the two Senators Kerry/Kerrey?

Luckily, everyone knew. Mort began with Kerry, John. "What John Kerry has discovered is that being—having been a Vietnam veteran and a war hero is politically useful and politically beneficial," Mort said. "Is he trying to have it both ways?" Brit asked. "Yeah, yeah of course," Mort said. "In those days…he was disillusioned by it, and a lot of people were. But now he wants to have it another way because it’s politically useful." But leave it Mara to find the real problem. Liasson—widely decorated for her own combat work in Vietnam—put the whole thing into context:

LIASSON: I think throwing the medals is—which weren’t his—is much more egregious, and it speaks to a different part of his character about grandstanding.

The All-Stars went on to parse John Kerry’s old words, finding all sorts of troubling contradictions in what the egregious fellow had said. And so, to the parade of horribles listed above, the All-Stars had added a fifth:

5. John Kerry came back and protested the war, and showed he had "character" problems.

In Vietnam, you’re damned if you did and you’re damned if you didn’t. And now, you’re damned if you came back to protest.

Without question, Maureen Dowd best expresses the press corps’ ethos: Everyone Has Character Problems But Us. But the All-Stars even pushed Dowd Wednesday night. Tell the truth—if it weren’t for the work of the Washington press corps, would you ever have dreamed, in a million years, that anyone on earth could be so dumb? We’ll now repeat our bedrock belief: No one on earth has "character" problems like the wholly unaccountable boys and girls who bravely serve in our Washington press corps.

Commentary by Brit Hume, Morton Kondracke, Mara Liasson
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 4/25/01