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.

Notes from the Overground

From a September 17 story in the New York Times exploring why gourmet teas are thriving even as the global economy sags, Mark Daley, chief executive officer of Dean  & Deluca says, “Demand for quality products has remained strong.” 

Now I ask Mr. Daley and the public relations staff that wrote this response if the word “product” conjures up a comfy image of steaming tea, the soothing heat as one cups the glass, the blossoming fragrance, the sense of relaxation.  If this were an article about gourmet retailing in general, perhaps “product” could be an appropriate (if weak) word choice, but in an article solely about tea, why not say “tea” and help to sell your product!

Over the past week, I have seen marketing people use the word product to describe software, cereal, healthcare insurance and special equipment. In each case, referring to the actual name of the product would have brought life and warmth to sentences that sounded stiff and, even in the TV ads, vaguely corporate.

From a September 18 World Brief column of the New York Times , a story about an 18-year-old German kid who ,”…armed with an axe, knives and Molotov cocktails wounded eight fellow students and a teacher at his high school…”

Notice, no one dead, only wounded.  This story, although not really important as news, is nonetheless one of the most poignant if macabre rationales for greater control of all fire arms.  Lots of violence, but no one died! And before they make it, here is my refutation to the knee-jerk sloganish argument that if we outlaw guns only criminals will have them: the backgrounds of the men who have committed mass killings over the past five years; lots of outsiders, some extremists and some prone to rowdy behavior, but no career or even occasional criminals.

From a September 14 article in the New York Times business section on why Business Week is in trouble, there is a paragraph explaining why advertisers discount the number of visits to Business Week’s website pages.  The reason:  because they figured out that 45% of unique visitors go there to see the slide shows, which can be endless (but represent only one real visit and one unique visitor). 

I have been wondering for about three years, why Forbes¸ Business Week other mags insist on presenting the website version of their lists of top 5, 7, 10, 20 and 40 cities, companies, states, resorts, schools and etceteras as slide shows in which the fastest turn to the next screen lasts approximately three times the length it takes to read it.  In designing this approach, they were not thinking either of their readers (or is viewers more apt for Internet reading?).  They were thinking primarily of pumping up their advertising rates.

GQ: The Bible of the Other Directed

Someone in my household bought the latest GQ to read the feature on Vladimir Putin, so naturally I took a look-see at this slick rag. 

The ads in GQ were just as I remembered them from the last time I perused a copy, probably some 25 years ago: very sharp photographs of highly-chiseled models in stylish clothing against nondescript backgrounds or in plush environments, all body imperfections whisked away electronically. 

What shocked me was the contrast in the sophisticated classic designs of the ads and the almost sloppy, thrown together look of most of the design of the editorial—except for a few features, most were bulletin-board arrangements of paragraphs, pull-out quotes, mini cartoons, clip art and factoids, in primitively primary colors and tiny type size, all presented with a kind of studied camp irony, as if the bulletin-board design were making fun of itself.  Bite-sized and well-sugared pieces of knowledge.

To use David Riesman’s terminology from his seminal work of sociology, The Lonely Crowd, GQ readers are upscale versions of the “other directed,” always seeking to follow the crowd and changing their opinion with the crowd changes.  Most of the magazine is dedicated to selling fashion and high-end consumer goods.  The underlying premise is that the purchase of consumer goods will attract the opposite sex.   Funny, GQ’s politics tend to be left of center and supportive of our left-of-center president, but the subtext, even of the politics, is inherently sexist.  Women in GQ become another possession. 

I was trying to figure out how GQ gets away with putting dozens of pages of advertising near the front of the magazine, page after page after page.  In a way, GQ forces you to flip every page (and thereby see all the ads) because editorial content is so sparse until the back of the book.  I suppose if the primary motivation is to understand what to buy and how to act to be cool, then you don’t mind looking at ads.

La plus ça change

The old French expression, “la plus ça change,” or “the more things change… (the more they remain the same)” certainly applies to the health care reform debate.

While looking for something else on the bookcase in the Jampole Communications office today, I found a very intriguing soft cover book titled “Health Care Reform Terms” from Tringa Press, by Vergil N. and Debora A. Slee, both medical doctors.

What was both so fascinating and alarming about this 115-page dictionary of terms deemed important for the understanding of the health care industry and health care reform was that the Slees wrote and published it in 1993 during the period in which the Clinton Administration was developing its health reform plans.

Two depressing observations:

1.  That it took 115 pages to define all the terms and acronyms that someone needed in 1993 to be a knowledgeable participant in the debate.  I perused the terms and virtually all I recognized are relevant to the healthcare debate today.  Some examples: “standard benefit package,” “Blue Cross and Blue Shield,” “assignment,” “area wage adjustment,” NHSC, OBRA, OMB, “procedure,” “right to die,” “case management,” “single-payer system,” “smart card.”

2.  That the objectives of health care reform, as proposed in the Slees’ introductory overview, remain absolutely the same.  The Slees present these objectives as a series of single words, followed by short paragraphs of explanation. Here they are:

  • Cost
  • Waste
  • Equity
  • Access
  • Accountability
  • Quality
  • Prevention
  • Security

The single word headlines are enough to make us realized how foolishly our society has squandered the last 16 years when it comes to creation of a modern health care system that ensures that everyone gets the health care that should be the basic right of all peoples while controlling cost.

They Believe the Lies

The news media everywhere covered a survey released this week by Indiana University that shows that a majority of Americans believe the lies—excuse me, myths— about health care reform that have been polluting the airwaves, virtual space, blogosphere, print pages and other public forums for months.  These myths, all false, include:

  • The federal government will be directly involved in making decisions about care: 50% believe this lie.
  • Taxpayers will have to pay for abortions: 55%
  • Illegal aliens will be covered: 46%
  • Waits for medical services will increase: 67%

Some people who believe the myths are surely frightened seniors or those who usually don’t get involved in political or social issues and therefore have not learned which media they can trust and which routinely distorts. 

But I’m going to postulate that the people who believe these myths largely coincide with the same “true believers” who have swallowed the many falsities promulgated by the religious right. I call them “true believers,” because they mostly decide matters of fact with anecdotes and beliefs and not facts; the origin of the expression is Eric Hofer, I believe.  The fact that many more Republicans than Democrats came down on the “lie side” of the IU survey supports that supposition.

The true believers are not bad people, but they do tend to believe a subset of the news media prone to lying and distorting facts, even when the truth is readily available.  These lying media, which include websites, some print media and a lot of talk radio, first ingratiated themselves with the true believers by tapping into their prejudices regarding religion, social issues such as abortion (and, for a while, gay marriage) and race, and connecting these core “true-believer” beliefs with a free-market, anti-government bias which I believe was always the true agenda of the right-wing media.  As the IU survey demonstrates, years of feeding prejudices with lies and distortions continue to pay off.

Tar Sand in the Eyes

Michael Lynch, a so-called energy consultant who used to be involved in energy research at MIT’s Center for International Studies, has a silly little piece of specious reasoning in today’s New York Times. The point of Lynch’s article is that the widespread belief in the  “peak oil” theory is leading to wasting money investing in “hairbrained renewable energy schemes” and imposing “unnecessary and expensive conservation measures.” 

Of course, Lynch never gives a single example of a “harebrained”  scheme or of unnecessary conservation, preferring to spend his limited words on attempting to demonstrate that the earth has 2.5 trillion barrels of oil and not a mere 2 trillion as claimed by some “peak oil” advocates.  As Wikipedia tells us, the peak theory, first proposed by M. King Hubbert, is a mathematical way to determine when the production of petroleum from any given oil field peaks, after which the yield from the field will start to dwindle inevitably to nothing. 

Let’s say that all of the adjustments that Lynch proposes to make to the peak oil theory are accurate and appropriate:  Won’t we still  run out of oil one day?  Are we better off sticking our hands in the tar sands (from which oil companies hope to one day pull oil) because we have more oil than one set of engineers say we do?  And isn’t the burning of oil for fuel still a major cause of global warming?

The interesting part of the article of course is the sly way in which by changing the argument from “when will we run out of oil” to “have we reached what can technically be described as the ‘peak’ in possible oil production,” Lynch hopes to justify less regulation and less investment in a viable energy future.  It’s an old rhetorical trick, akin to throwing (tar) sand into the eyes of the reader. 

Let’s Focus on the Objectives

I suspect I agree with Bob Herbert more than any other mainstream print columnist I read, but I disagree with his assessment that the now likely health care reform will be a bad thing.

First Herbert’s description of probable health care reform from today’s column:

“If the oldest and sickest are on Medicare, and the poorest are on Medicaid, and the young and the healthy are required to purchase private insurance without the option of a competing government-run plan — well, that’s reform the insurance companies can believe in.”

But doesn’t that description accomplish one of the two goals of health care reform: to cover more people?  Who really cares who is covering whom, as long as everyone is covered with a decent set of health care benefits?  The fact that insurance companies will make profits may matter on other non-health care related issues, but on the issue of coverage, it does not.  Most health care insurance profits are regulated already in one way or another. I’m therefore not opposed to the solution that Herbert describes. 

Of course, there is still the other objective of reducing costs.  Universal coverage, technology fixes and new regulations, all in proposed health care reform, will take care of some part of the funding problem.  But the U.S. won’t really be able to cut health care costs until we as a nation live a healthier lifestyle.  Again, that has nothing to do with insurance reform.

FYI, Herbert’s comments on drug manufacturers in the same column are on point.

How About Some Fact-Based Thinking?


Why are so many of the bedrock principles of the rural-suburban right wing based on misinformation, distortions or bald-faced lies?  Consider these following cornerstones of current conservative thought:


  1. That global warming does not exist and that what warming is occurring does not result from human actions
  2. That private sector solutions are always better than the intervention of government
  3. That people are safer when everyone carries a loaded handgun around
  4. That locking people up deters crime more than rehabilitation
  5. Everything in the U.S. is better than in Western Europe and the rest of the developed world


Repeated studies by multiple groups have disproved all five of these conservative beliefs:

  • Global warning is occurring and human activity is a primary cause
  • The government has done a better job than the private sector in several areas, including prison management, pensions and health care.
  • Studies show that more people are killed by ordinary citizens or friendly fire than by robbers and other criminals year after year, meaning people are less safe with more guns in society
  • Again, study results virtually always favor rehabilitation, just as they favor therapy over prison for drug offenders
  • We have the worst health care system in the developed world, more expensive than any western European country, with higher infant mortality rates and lower life spans.  Europe also has better mass transit and more secure pensions for its workers.

I understand the old-fashioned “black” propaganda that religiously tinged right-wing broadcast and Internet media constantly spew: that concoction of anecdotes, scenarios, provocative questions, inferences, innuendoes, invalid studies financed by right-wing interests and quotes from so-called experts like Charles Krauthammer, Juan Williams, Michelle Malkin, William Kristol, et. al., all of whom are paid by right-wing interests.  Yes, it’s a deeply stimulating if pernicious brew.  But why do so many people zero in on these lies, shoddy facts and arguments and ignore or reject the mainstream natural and social sciences?   Why do so many people believe what so many facts disprove?