Check Your Facts

If I’m a little late in commenting on the vast differences in the reported head count at the so-called Taxpayer March on September 12 in Washington, it’s because I took the time to do some homework (with the help of my assistant Colette).

I first noticed that reporters were including a wide range of numbers in their stories about the march in an article analyzing the significance of the march on the front page in the September 15 edition of the Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune.  Here’s the paragraph in question:

“Estimates of the crowd size ranged from a low of 75,000 to a high of 2 million. A number of news organizations reported that more than 1.2 million people attended. “

Now my ethical sixth sense as a former journalist tells me that the discrepancy in numbers from 75,000 to 2 million is so great that the reporter should have cited the names of those news organizations that were reporting these figures. 

As some readers will know, the political bent of most articles and opinion pieces in the Trib-Review is decidedly right-wing.  I therefore immediately thought that the higher figures were probably spurious numbers.  

To check my hypothesis, first I had Colette look online for news media accounts of the march that mentioned that a number of news organizations reported that more than 1.2 million people attended, but without citing the organizations. Colette found dozens upon dozens of these stories, including from The Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, Hawaii Free Press, and The Huntsville Times.

The next step was to find which news media had actually reported these large numbers of marchers, and in doing so I uncovered what may be labeled a conspiracy of incompetence.  As we will see, the main stream media allowed the larger numbers to get into the mainstream public discussion by citing the broad range of numbers in a typical “he said, she said” approach to story-writing, instead of going to the original sources and finding out who really said what. 

We found very few citations in the news media or online of reporters naming the parties actually providing head counts, but here’s what we did find:

  • In his September 14 show, Glen Beck said that The London Telegraph reported that more than a million people attended the Taxpayer March. In fact, what the London Telegraph actually said was “There was no official count.”
  • In one of its stories on the march,  Hawaii Free Press says on September 14 that the Daily Mall, another British paper, stated that “up to two million marched on the U.S. Capital.”  The Daily Mall did say “up to one million,” which is the only number reported by the news media that turns out to actually have been proposed by a cited reporter/media outlet. How the one turned into a two is anyone’s guess.
  • The American Thinker reported that the National Park Service called the march the largest event ever held in Washington.  That was a lie.  What the Park Service said, as reported for example in Washington Post, was that the Inauguration of President Barack Obama had the largest crowd of any event ever held in our nation’s capital.
  • As The Nation points out, during the rally part of the march, one of the organizers announced onstage that ABC News estimated the crowd at from 1.0 million to 1.5 million.  Of course, ABC News issued a quick denial.
  • An ultra-conservative friend said he heard that by analyzing a photograph, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin concluded that there were 2 million people at the Taxpayer March.  We checked this claim out too.  In reality, it was Glen Beck who cited a university study but could not remember the name of the university.  That was it for this weird rumor.

By contrast, a number of news organizations directly cited estimates of from 10,000 to 75,000 and pit their names behind the estimate, including Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Associated Press and Fox

At the end of the day, if news media outlets wanted to cite low and high range numbers (instead of accepting the low range consensus), they should have said that the Daily Mall estimated that as many as 1.0 million people were in attendance.  Why didn’t they? Occam’s razor, that principle that the simplest explanation is probably the best, might say that they didn’t think the Daily Mall’s one claim of a million stood up real well against multiple claims of under 100,000.

Citing numbers that no one is actually using is a variation on the Matt Drudge phenomenon that has already weakened the ethical standards of journalists and other writers.  The Matt Drudge phenomenon occurred when reporters started reporting what Matt Drudge said about the facts of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  Drudge was not always right, but that did not matter to mainstream reporters who instead of investigating allegations themselves instead told us what Matt had reported.  While Drudge got some things right, he got far from everything right, and the longer the scandal went on, the less right he turned out to be. 

But quoting Drudge allowed the news media to present an anti-Clinton (and at heart an anti-progressive) bias as facts without having to defend the facts. It’s the very same approach used by the news media who reported numbers without citing which organization provided the numbers.  The effect in the later case was to give the false impression that the views of the Taxpayers March represent a large majority of the country, and not just one corner of the increasingly marginalized right wing.

Maybe the Times Deserves to Be Picked On?

In the wake of two recent stories about people on Medicaid in which all the case histories were African-American, the New York Times today presented a story of brave and highly skilled Americans who have been looking for jobs so long that they have became discouraged and are no longer looking.  The four people, whom the Times drew from four distinct parts of the country, represent what may be a total 1.4 million people who want to work, but are not even considered as in the labor force and therefore are not counted among the unemployed.

All four of the people in the article, which in the national edition is a third of the first page plus one other page, are white (one with a Hispanic surname).  Just as the Times could not find a white who is on Medicaid in two articles on cutbacks hurting clinics, so it could not identify one black who wants to work but can’t find a job.

Interesting to note that both Medicaid articles limited the case histories to one city, whereas today’s article roamed from Kansas and Houston to North Carolina and Florida.  

You can blame it on the reporters, but editors are also to blame for what is looking more and more like a subtle attempt to reinforce traditional racial attitudes by the Times.

Doonesbury Copies a Master

There are many variations on the old saw that there are relatively few patterns in human communication.  Some examples:

  • Jack Benn told only six jokes.
  • There are only 10 basic plots for all stories.
  • The theory of Theophrastus (371 b. c. e. – 281 b. c. e) that there are only 30 basic character types in drama.

A Doonesbury that I saw earlier this week reminds me that there are only a limited number of jokes and punch lines.  It represents a perfect example of reinvigorating a basic cartoon joke, one that has been around for millennia and is an important building block in the language of the cartoon. 

I remember first seeing this piece of cartoon rhetoric in the late 60s: Under a voluptuously wide tree, a young man and woman sit on a blanket.  His balloon is crowded with images that show he’s talking about everything from the theory of relativity to the possibility of happiness in a world haunted by death, his total monologue covering perhaps 25 distinct topics.  Her think balloon is a photo of the two of them making out on the blanket in the buff.

The trope is the dissonance in thinking between two people who share a moment together: one has his head in an ethereal and rather wordy place, the other is fixated on a basic instinct.  The joke relies on irony and the restatement of a widespread belief.

Garry Trudeau does an admiral job of breathing new life into this old trope, putting his new wine in an old rhetorical bottle.  His version comprises four panels, in each of which a CIA station chief wearing a cowboy hat makes a series of depressing comparisons between our current war in Afghanistan and the Viet Nam war.  He speaks a total of 54 words, which is really a lot for a newspaper weekday cartoon.  In the last panel, the think balloon above the incompetent slacker kid to whom he’s talking reads, “I could go for a kebob.”

Same joke delivered using the same rhetorical device.

Note that Trudeau communicates as his subtextual message one of the mainstays of ideological subtext in virtually all periods and all societies about which I remember reading: That the young are less competent and have less drive to succeed than their elders.  Interesting to note, in many civilizations such as our own, major subtextual themes involve both despising and worshiping young adults.


Ideological Subtext, Part 3

The New York Times today offered two examples of ideological subtext, which roughly speaking is the embedding of a basic value, belief or social axiom into the subtext of a communication.  The reference to the belief usually is unnecessary to the understanding of the article, and sometimes runs counter to the facts that the article is exploring.

Here are the examples, both from the national edition, published in Canton, Ohio:

  • Here is the description of Erich Kunzel in the first paragraph of his obituary: “Erich Kunzel, who conducted the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for more than three decades, undermining the pretensions of symphonic music in more than 80 recordings….” The ideological subtext is that classical music has “pretensions.”  The writer could have just as easily said,”…and dumbing down people’s understanding of music by conflating ‘Pops’-style orchestrations with legitimate classical music in more than 80 recordings…”  Or more even-handedly, the writer could have written, “…popularizing ‘Pops-style’ orchestral music in 80 recordings…”
  • The lead story on the “National” page concerned another Medicaid clinic in trouble.  There were three photos and all were of African-Americans (one also had a physician who clearly looked either subcontinental or middle eastern).  I have now seen five photographs in two feature articles in the Times on Medicaid clinics in trouble in the past few weeks and all the photos focused on African-Americans.  Again, the overwhelming number of Medicaid recipients are white.  Now it is possible that across the country only clinics serving African-Americans are in trouble; if so, that’s the real story and the New York Times should cover it.  As is, the ideological subtext to the story is that only Black people are on the public dole.

I’m not picking on the New York Times, but it’s the newspaper I read everyday.  I am going to start giving examples of ideological subtext from other news media over the next few weeks.

Wake Up the Copy Editors

The New York Times may be going a little too far in trying to make its Tuesday “Science Times” section accessible to the mythical average Joe-and-Jane.  I’m sure many of my (perhaps mythical) readers know the section I’m talking about: It’s the one with all the health care and technology/engineering articles with some occasional science thrown into the mix.

The beginning of two articles in today’s “Science Times” both take a chatty, “here’s what the in crowd thinks” approach to introducing the subject, a writing style that really belongs in gossip, society and fashion magazines.  Neither article offers up any study or expert to support the assertions made at the beginning of the article, but rather presents them as self-evident, at least to those of us who are “in the know.”  Both articles go on to present theories of experts that contradict or stand in contrast to the ideas presented as known gospel in the first paragraph(s).

The first article concerns recent theories on the “evolutionary” advantage of sleep.  Before we go any further, I must state that I am a firm believer in the theory of evolution and the fact that humans and all living things descended through time and mass extinctions from single cell creatures.   I just don’t like to see pop-Darwinism thrown around to make silly conjunctures about the complex behavior of humans.

 “If there is a society of expert sleepers out there, a cult of smug snoozers satisfied that they’re getting just the right number of restful hours a night, it must be a secretive one. Most people seem insecure about their sleep and willing to say so: they would like to get a little more; maybe they wish they could get by on less; they wonder if it’s deep enough.”

This next story, from the same issue, also is about the evolutionary origins of an aspect of human behavior, in this case, the serial monogamy that many people in western societies practice.  The assumption that “we” (or at least “our crowd”) believe the ridiculous sexist nonsense proffered in the first two paragraphs is its own kind of reinforcing ideological subtext, and an offensive one to my way of thinking.  And note again the lack of any expert or study to support the “theories,” or even support the assertion that most people believe these theories.

“In the United States and much of the Western world, when a couple divorces, the average income of the woman and her dependent children often plunges by 20 percent or more, while that of her now unfettered ex, who had been the family’s primary breadwinner but who rarely ends up paying in child support what he had contributed to the household till, climbs accordingly. The born-again bachelor is therefore perfectly positioned to attract a new, younger wife and begin building another family.

“Small wonder that many Darwinian-minded observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building. By this conventional evolutionary psychology script, the man who skips from one nubile spouse to another over time is, like the sultan who hoards the local maidenry in a single convenient location, simply seeking to “maximize his reproductive fitness,” to sire as many children as possible with as many wives as possible. It is the preferred male strategy, especially for powerful men, right? Sequentially or synchronously, he-men consort polygynously.”

While we’re on the subject of leads, I’ve seen another sign that cutbacks in newsrooms are leading to a lowering of editorial standards.  Here are the first two paragraphs in today’s Associated Press story on the Yankees-Orioles baseball game last night:

“Andy Pettitte retired his first 20 batters before a lamentable seventh-inning sequence spoiled both his perfect game and no-hit bid, and the New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 Monday night.

“Pettitte (12-6) was poised to finish the seventh without allowing a baserunner, but former Oriole Jerry Hairston Jr. let a two-out grounder by Adam Jones slip through his legs for an error. Hairston was playing in place of Alex Rodriguez, who was given the night off.”

Now here’s the entire story about the game that ran in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and many other newspapers, which have taken up the practice of using the first sentence of the A.P. article as the compete story in a round-up section of baseball games:

“Andy Pettitte retired his first 20 batters before a lamentable seventh-inning sequence spoiled both his perfect game and no-hit bid, and the New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 Monday night.”

Someone at the Post-Gazette really should have taken the time to revise “before lamentable seventh-inning sequence” (not such a great phrase to begin with, but acceptable when followed by a sentence of explanation) into something like “before an error and a hit…”


Ideological Subtext, Part 2

NPR gave us a wonderful example of an aspirational kind of ideological subtext this morning in a story about an Iranian-American student at Columbia University and his long-distance relationship with friends in the homeland during these turbulent times.  Near the beginning, the earnest young man reminisces about hearing his father talk about current events happening in Iran when he was a boy and tuning him out!  Since I and my brother and most of the kids we knew hung on every word when adults talked about current events, I found it peculiar that this boy did not.

It does not matter if the Iranian college boy said it or not.  He said a lot of things and the reporter chose to select that one detail of not caring about the news as a means to structure the introduction of the subject.  Once more, the news director accepted this decision to have the young lad describe himself as a former dunce, just an average Columbia Joe until something or someone changed his life. Keep listening to find out…

The ideological subtext of this detail is clear: children are naturally uncurious and even anti-intellectual.  To “not be an intellectual” has been one of the three basic foundation stones of aspirational subtext in the mass media since at least the 1920s, along with identify and follow the in-crowd and buying something brings happiness.

What has always puzzled me is why writers—the intelligentsia in any society—choose to be the instrument that conveys that to be smart is a bad thing.

Dumbing Down

The description of “The Marriage of Figaro” in the Pittsburgh Opera’s season ticket solicitation marks a new low in dumbing down the arts.   Here it is:

“What is this thing called love? 

Imagine protecting your fiancée from a lecherous rival, finding your long-lost son, and healing an ailing marriage – all in one day! Most of us would pull out our hair, but this is Mozart, and on Figaro’s dizzying wedding day, love is in the air, behind a door, under a chair, and in everyone’s hearts. And you thought your wedding day was chaotic.”

Now let’s disregard the fact that there is no connection between the headline and the paragraph that follows it.  And let’s also disregard that there is absolutely nothing in the description about the magnificent music, nor about this most literary of librettos, based on Beaumarchais’ play, one of the most subversive, anti-establishment works of the past 250 years.

Let’s focus on the way the paragraph tries so very hard to connect with those who regularly read and take seriously fashion and bridal magazines.  Arts organizations, and especially serious music ensembles, have been engaged in this kind of dumbing down for about 10-15 years now, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to work.  I can’t say specifically what the Pittsburgh Opera’s financial situation is, but most arts organizations have not been helped by dumbed-down marketing gimmicks; ticket sales are still down for virtually all arts organizations.  But these gimmicks do manage to piss off those core customers who don’t like the anti-intellectualism and mindless consumerism that are the ideological bedrock of fashion, bridal and similar periodical fluff.

For the record: I would be even more perturbed if the description of the opera took a smutty or Sinatra-cool laddy-mag approach.

Or Maybe it’s Occam’s Razor

The New York Times has another great example of ideological subtext in a story on the front page of the August 7, 2009 business section titled “Trickle-Down Costs” and again it had to do with the selection of photos.

The story concerned the pressures on state governments to cut Medicaid costs and focused on Medicaid challenges and cutbacks in the state of Washington.  There was one photo on page B1 and another on the continuation on page B4 (all national edition).  Both photos were of African-Americans on Medicaid in the state of Washington.  Keep in mind that only 3% of all Washington state Medicaid recipients are African-American and only 12% of all recipients nationwide are African-American, according to the latest study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  The possible ideological subtext that we can infer from this selection of photographs is odious and clearly plays into some old and ugly myths, to say the least.

Remember that as with the Times article described in my August 7 post, the writer of this article, Clifford Krauss, and the editor made a conscious decision to run just these photographs.

But maybe there is another explanation:  Maybe both reporters were cutting corners—grab a few case histories and take a few photos in one city and don’t be concerned with what subtext they might communicate.  Cutting corners or saving on costs or both—that would be the “Occam’s Razor” explanation.  (Occam’s Razor is the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.)  While I’m reasonably sure that the Times does color its stories to convey, and overestimate, the centrality of Christianity to contemporary society in the U.S., I’m also fairly certain that the Times absolutely does not routinely trade in inaccurate racial stereotypes.

Ideological Subtext – Part 1

One of the things I want to do in this blog is to share my analysis of ideological subtext in the news media. Ideological subtext consists of the messages that a journalist and media outlet make in developing story details, e.g., who or what to feature as the case history example, what comments are selected or simply the unstated point-of-view narrating the news story. The ongoing pattern of decisions creates the media outlet’s ideological subtext. For example, peruse the non-business pages of any newspaper specifically looking for examples of the writer taking for granted that free markets are preferable to regulated ones. I’m sure you’ll find many.

The photos in a story that began on the front page of the August 4, 2009 New York Times titled “Years After Layoffs, Many Still Struggle to Match Old Salaries” betray a Times ideological subtext that I believe is relatively new: support of an overtly Christian lifestyle. The story reflects the headline and focuses on a few people in a networking group laid off by Pratt & Whitney in 2000. The captions to two of the three photos on the page A12 continuation say it all: “Chuck Dettman arriving at his Christian counseling service, Today’s Promise, in Jupiter, Fla.” and “Jim Clark, with his wife, Jeanne, outside St. Paul of the Cross Church in North Palm Beach, Fla.”

Now the writer, Micheal Luo, chose to ask the photographer to take photos in a religious setting and the editor chose to use them. The decision to let religious environments dominate a story about jobs and economics was consciously or unconsciously ideological. Even if the subjects of the case histories all wore their religions on their sleeves, the photographs still could have avoided interjecting religion into the context, for example, photos in front of their homes or at their current lower-paying jobs. Or, the writer could have selected a more diverse group of subjects, which is what we have come to expect from the Times in any case.

(In fact, years ago I used to exploit the Times’ desire to use a diverse set of case history subjects to get stories placed about Pennsylvania economic development programs. I would send information about a Pennsylvania case history to reporters stationed in Detroit and Washington, D.C., who would use the information to round out stories they were doing on economic development that focused on case histories in their regions.)

I wish I had started a blog in 2000 because that’s when I started to notice the Times using religious contexts to depict stories on a wide range of economic topics, social issues and even foreign policy beliefs. I can’t prove it, though, unless I could somehow go back and analyze every Times article over the past 40 years. Let’s call it an impression I have.