Monday, September 15, 2008

Department of Short Answers

Business Week has taken another whack at the SpinSpotters tale, without too awfully much improvement. Here's the new lede:

If I told you I invented a machine that could spot bias in what you read, would you believe me?

Uh, "no." Or in slightly longer form: "Dunno. If I told you I had invented a machine that turned your Camry into a time machine while converting the exhaust fumes into a cheeky yet accessible merlot, would you believe me?"

Time's a bit short to review all the bidding here, though the reporter's justifications for the original column do shed some light on the science/journalism issue in passing. But ponder for a second the basic SpinSpotters premise: Right-wing crank claims to have invented formula that, with lots of input from trusted readers (and journalism students, as we now learn, to "help referee the system"), will eventually be able to scan a piece of text and isolate phrases that people with too much time on their hands have identified as symptomatic of "spin." And think of what, if anything, it might identify in a story like this:

Ex-POW Criticizes McCain in 'Swift Boat'-Style Ad
A former Naval Academy midshipman who was imprisoned alongside John McCain is the narrator of a new television ad that bashes the Republican candidate by saying being a prisoner of war is not a good prerequisite for being president.

"Bashes." Hmm, well, it's in the active voice, so that's all right, and it's not an adjective, so it can't go beyond its supporting evidence. So "bash" must just be ... some sort of verb that means "question the relationship between some form of experience and the job it purportedly qualifies a candidate for"?

... The ad, which is in the vein of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who used former comrades of John Kerry to knock down the idea that his military service qualified him for the presidency, is part of a new effort by “527″ groups to lend an assist to Barack Obama.

And it provides context! So on the evidence, what we have here is another straight-up-the-middle bit of dispassionate political journalism from America's Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

Unless your algorithm actually sat up and watched the Swift Boat ads back in 2004, in which case it might spit out its popcorn and ask if you just saw what it just saw. The Swift Boat ads didn't "knock down the idea" that Kerry's military service "qualified him for the presidency." They said he lied about his service. They said he "betrayed us" and "dishonored his country." Is there a particular kind of brain-dead zombie you have to be before the stuff at Fox makes sense?

So, anyway, we're going to have some ongoing issues with the algorithm. Unless you want to give it a shortcut: If you see something on Fox, just assume it's a lie. No charge for the initial consultation!


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, now, to be fair: flat-out lying isn't really "spin".

9:39 PM, September 15, 2008  
Blogger Pete said...

Of course, "former comrades of John Kerry" is free of bias.

12:32 AM, September 16, 2008  

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