Saturday, October 14, 2006

Reporter plays scientist. Bummer.

Other People's Science isn't the only place where journalists can put their feet wrong. A writer who decides to count stuff and draw inferences is asking to be judged by a different standard, and he (or she) might not be ready to play in that league.

There's a risk for the writer over and above having us in readerland think he (or she) is a freaking dimbulb. In a case like the one at hand, we've gone down to the Wal-Mart BiasCenter and bought us a big old box of hollowpoints for the clowns who like to snipe at the Librul Media. So without further ado, let's introduce psycholinguist R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post (10A Friday if you're scoring along at home).

Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'
President Wields Word More Freely as His Frustration Rises and His Influence Ebbs

The inept heds are the copydesk's fault. By leaving out the story's minimal attribution, they turn the speculations of "some presidential scholars and psychologists" into established facts. And the "confounded," well ... But stand back; the writer's about to come into his own.

President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable."

In speeches, statements and news conferences this year, the president has repeatedly declared a range of problems "unacceptable," including rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Bush's decision to lay down blunt new markers about the things he deems intolerable comes at an odd time, a phase of his presidency in which all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will: national security setbacks in North Korea and Iraq, a Congress that has shrugged its shoulders at his top domestic initiatives, a favorability rating mired below 40 percent.

Hang on to "decision," "blunt new markers" and "odd time."

But a survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.

Time for a couple of basic methodology points. First, content analysis isn't the sort of tool that measures the "stoking" of "desire" (OK, maybe for Harlequin Throbbing Desire novels, but not for political speech). Inferences about what the president's frustration did to his throbbing desire don't reflect the data. They reflect the writer's opinions. One is tempted to call them "fabrications." They sort of are.

In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.

Second -- oh, it's the Post, so let's play Watergate: What did you count and how did you count it? That's a "reliability" question, and it's the moral equivalent of identifying your sources. Where'd you get your numbers, and what ensures anyone that your sample is an accurate representation of presidential speech? If you don't tell me, I'm liable to think you're making it up.

("Validity," of course, is a different issue. The writer needs to explain why this word by itself is an accurate index of presidential frustration and confoundment. But let's wait and see how the writer does on the midterm before we get into validity.)

Having a president call something "unacceptable" is not the same as having him order U.S. troops into action. (Bear, woods, Charmin.) But foreign policy experts say the word is one of the strongest any leader can deploy, since it both broadcasts a national position and conveys an implicit threat to take action if his warnings are disregarded. (Mind quoting or identifying any of these experts?)

Bush's use of the term "reflects in some ways his frustration with a world that doesn't seem as amenable to his policies as he would like them to be," said Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist at the City University of New York.

You think they're pitching a hizzy over to the Post copydesk? A professor -- a professor! -- using "them" with a singular antecedent! Hope they're not so upset they overlook the, um, content.

... As such, charting the ebbs and flows of Bush's proclamations of "unacceptability" provides clues to trends in presidential irritations. It also demonstrates that Bush's most intense grievances -- like his attention -- have moved offshore, as evidenced this year by his eight declarations about "unacceptable" events in Iraq, and his 11 declarations about unacceptable behavior by Iran.

You can proclaim whatever you want, but you aren't a lot closer to making your case. If you're suggesting that international issues have been a bigger deal of late than domestic ones, the principle of parsimony suggests you not waste time with content analysis. You could, like, turn on the TV.

... Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

I missed something. How "strident and extreme" did we decide "unacceptable" was?

... Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.

OK. At this point, anybody who wants to allege that the Post's national section will run any sort of fictional anti-Bush propaganda that comes down the pike can go right ahead. Is there something unusual about that "favorite verbal tic"? Never heard anybody begin a sentence with "look"? Never heard Violeta Chamorro (you remember her; we had a proxy war with her country for much of the 1980s) begin an answer with "Mira"? How do you propose to demonstrate that this is a sign of "mounting frustrations" (see "throbbing desire," above")? What makes it a sign that "he hasn't given up hope it might work"?

Maybe the Post copydesk doesn't have the firepower to stop a star writer when he's in Make Stuff Up mode. That'd be a shame, though most of us have been there. But this one still ought to be embarrassing.


Anonymous Cat said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the final line of the article: "Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report." Are you still pondering what exactly she might have contributed?

11:25 PM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger nicole bogdas said...

Well, duh. She's the one who conducted the searches for how many times Bush used particular words. I wouldn't want this reporter anywhere near my archives. ;)

9:03 AM, October 16, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

I can kind of guess -- which is not as good as knowing -- what sort of contribution she made. But that doesn't get at the question: What body of speech was used for this measure, and how can the writers assure that it's representative? (Validity, which is whether these things measure what the writer says they do, is a whole different question.)

I'm all for research directors. I wish there were more of 'em, and I wish short-sighted executives were more inclined to support positions like that in financially tight times. But telling me the research director contributed is like telling me Woodward added some stuff: Nice title, but I'd rather hear about the sources.

4:34 PM, October 16, 2006  
Anonymous Denise Covert said...

I wonder if copydeskers suffer from lack of self-confidence, that they have such a hard time calling bullshit when something ridiculous comes across their screens.

I personally don't care how late it is, or how many editors have already read a story -- if it doesn't make sense, I call it, and if there's nothign else to fill the space, well that's why they call it FILLER, and all those aforementioned editors who let it pass will have to explain why there's a plug there during the next day's morning meeting, while I'm still asleep.*

(Of course, now I work days and with mostly freelance copy, where I am EXPECTED to challenge everything. I'm referring to how I used to act at night, and how I still often do when I fill in there occasionally. Either way, I'm never at the morning meeting.)

5:02 PM, October 17, 2006  
Anonymous Strayhorn said...

Do star writers even run their copy through the desk? I would guess "no" given the boneheaded mistakes I usually find in the Sunday papers. I would assume that at the bigger organizations, the writings of such folk are treated as if they come from the burning bush.

9:14 AM, October 18, 2006  
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