Saturday, November 03, 2007

Fake news and news vacuums

Hey, see if you can guess which major news provider offered this story last week:

Superhero Science? Zombie Studies? Colleges Offer Offbeat Courses

In the hallowed halls of some of America's most elite — and expensive — educational institutions, students are taking classes in subjects like garbage, superpowers and zombies.

And the sticker price? As much as $5,000 a pop.

The offbeat offerings appear on the rosters of public and private colleges of all stripes at a time when professors are vying for students who have an increasingly large selection of courses to choose from.

Aw, you peeked. Anyway, as you've probably gathered, Fox's "Superhero Science" tale wasn't driven by anything that actually happened. But it's a convenient excuse to talk about some stuff that did happen, or is happening, and how and where it doesn't get read about.

Tales about "offbeat offerings" (dive! dive! alliterometer alert!) in the college catalog are sort of a perennial. They're easy to do; I mean, the latest PMLA just got here with a program for the Chicago convention, and if you can't put together 800 words on Those Wacky Profs from an MLA convention program, you ain't trying. (A whole panel devoted to James Brown! AEJ's got its work cut out for it.) It's the domestic equivalent of what A.J. Liebling described 50 years ago in international reporting:

Variants of this story are "German girls say Yanks make (best, worst, lazy) husbands"; "GIs say European girls (dumb, best, make best wives)"; "Hot dogs big hit in Persia"; "Arabs like American cars" -- in fact, you can do it yourself." As usual, Liebling was right.

For Fox, this is social-norming news of the best kind. No, the planet didn't go off its axis while you slept. Absent-minded professors are still wandering the campus going "hullo trees hullo sky" and offering courses on Superman to lure your hard-studying Omegas away from real stuff, like history and economics.* The world's still divided into Us and Them. You can go about your business.

Because Fox is nothing if not Fair-n-Balanced, the profs get to offer their ritual defenses: Superman's a great way to introduce the physics of flight! ("It gives me a chance to talk about real science but in a context that is very familiar to the students.") But Fox wants you to know there's a serious issue underneath:

At a time when the cost of college has doubled that of inflation and students are graduating with more debt than ever before, such courses raise questions about what value they lend to a student's overall education and whether they're just a ploy to get people to sign up.

The only people for whom the courses at hand "raise questions," of course, are the Fox reporter and whoever's editing (to put a kind face on it) her copy. The lone "expert" interviewed for the piece says Superman's a fine way to make physics accessible, even as he warns against taking "frivolous" courses. No indication what he means by that. Maybe it's something like music theory, which is pretty scary and mathematical but probably won't help you get the Wall Street job that is the highest and best goal of any real American undergraduate program. But there's actually a point here worth noting:

Cutbirth's class examines the role of comedians and their spoof newscasts, like "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," in the public's perception of politics and the media. Students have to choose one of the two shows to watch four times a week.

And the next graf sort of writes itself, what with the shocked! shocked! suspicion that the only thing you do for this class is watch TV. Which, depending on why you're doing it, can be pretty hard work. Try coding a half-hour of Fox for any sort of content analysis sometime. More to the point, try coding two weeks of the Daily Show and your daily newspaper for political content. Which isn't an idle suggestion.

Political knowledge, after all, doesn't have to come from a half-hour network newscast to be real (check out Matthew Baum's stuff for some of the ways that's playing out). If you end up with information that helps you form a set of rational, consistent preferences that are actually consistent with your interests, who cares where you got it from? As long as you ... well, let's have a look through the latest poll from The State of Columbia.

The reporting itself doesn't say much, except that when it comes to reporting survey data, The State is still pretty much lost in The Ozone.** To its credit, though, it posts links to PDFs of the results and the methodology (which should suggest several ways in which this is a better survey than the ones Opinion Dynamics runs for Fox). And from these we can learn some interesting stuff. For example, that two Democrats (Kucinich and Gravel) have exactly no support in the sample*** and two others (Richardson and Dodd) are weighing in at a hefty 0.4 percent.

Which could mean that those candidates are exceptionally clueless and platform-free -- sort of like the Monster Raving Loonies, only without a platform. Or it could mean that owing to sampling error, they actually have negative support and might have to give South Carolina back any votes they get in Iowa. Or it could mean something else. As in?

Well, let's see who(m) The State has covered in the past couple weeks. There's a pretty good amount about one candidate:
Colbert won't be on SC ballot
South Carolina's favorite son returns
Battle of Edwards vs. Colbert
S.C.'s favorite son bringing the campaign home
Colbert's candidacy brushes other news aside
Colbert making big bucks for schools
Colbert running
Is South Carolina ready for an injection of 'truthiness'?

How are the other candidates covered? Glad you asked. Kucinich and Richardson show up in the 15th graf of an article (should you read the AP version) about the debate among Edwards, Clinton and Obama (complaining about not getting any face time; the nerve of some candidates). Kucinich gets a headline for suggesting that the incumbent might be sort of a, you know, Monster Raving Loony himself for saying Iran's going to the proximate cause of World War III. Richardson is mentioned in passing in a self-congratulatory editorial about payday lending. And there's quite a bit, needless to say, about the Big Three. Meaning, among other things, that if your interests are reflected by some candidate who isn't Clinton, Colbert, Edwards or Obama (just to put 'em in alphabetical order), you're sort of what we call SOL.

Things aren't much different at the largest paper in North and South Carolina, whose coverage is mostly defined by what John Edwards ("Eye on Edwards: A Carolinas native campaigns for president") is up to. Again, three articles -- two picked up from the MCT stablemate in Columbia -- and an editorial on Colbert. If you think your interests might be served if you could express a preference for a Democrat with actual experience in international diplomacy, again, you're going to have to look elsewhere.

Where? Um, how about "The Daily Show," where Richardson has been interviewed twice in the last six months or so? And where you might have seen, amid the usual run of Hollywood people, other folks whose views are of some interest if you're keeping up with the War On Terror® and its offshoots: John Mueller, for example, or Pervez Musharraf? None of whom were as funny as Kucinich's appearance on "The Colbert Report," though that too was a reasonable start if you wanted to form your preferences from a slightly wider pool than what you get in the McClatchy rags that dominate the upper range of nupes in the Carolinas.

You want fake news, you can get all you need from the real news. But if you want real news, you have to go the fake news. Whose bright idea was that?

* The right-wing press has a pretty good idea of what a college curriculum ought to entail, though it tends to overlook some of the obvious prepositional issues: History of who, and economics of what? Mr. Last's babblings were discussed here last year.
** Don't report confidence intervals to two decimal places. Don't claim movement in a survey without reporting the comparable numbers from an identically conducted poll earlier. Don't confuse a nonsigificant difference with a "statistical tie"; they aren't the same thing. Always report confidence levels, without which any discussion of sampling error is meaningless. And please, retire the phrase "within the margin of error."
*** Which, obviously, is not the same as having no support in the population. God in Her infinite wisdom made sampling error for a reason.

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