Thursday, April 30, 2009

What, me panic?

That had to have been a head-scratcher over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. Here's the vice president telling people he wouldn't want his family taking airplanes or subways* just now, and the airline industry is kinda upset that he's spreading fear and loathing panic like that, so ... if only we had a precedent for deciding how to label this! I know! It's fearmongering!

Oh, that centerpiece from March 15? Totally different case. It's all in the hand angle. Cheney's calming America down with his gravitas and reassuring body language. Biden, he's raising his hand to swear on a stack of Bibles that he wrote the Gettysburg Address or something.

Anyway, glad we could clear that up for you.

* Automobiles, as best I can tell, weren't part of the statement in question. But on Planet Fox, being able to work a movie title into a hed beats getting the thing right.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not an arsonist but a tightwad

These failures are not the result of a press conspiracy, however, as left-wing critics in the past have frequently charged. The newspaper proprietor who will spend only a dead minimum on reporting is like a slum landlord who maintains a firetrap. The landlord does not want a fire. He hopes there won't be any, and he will save the cost of fire escapes. He is not an arsonist but a tightwad.

... "Conspiracy" would be less disquieting than the present state of affairs, because the newspapers could not possibly conspire as fast and as often as they now manage to keep the news out of circulation through their miserly ineptitude.

-- Footnote to "Goodbye, MBI" (1948), reprinted in "The Press"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Offers and demands

Today's A.J. Liebling quote is an enduring favorite, in no small part because, as the swamp of masscomm theory was slowly drifted into by us, it stood out as a link to the past: Aw, cool! You guys have a theory for why news does this?

Here it is, with a bit of context. The topic is the great New York newspaper strike of 1962/63, and Liebling is discussing the coverage of a report from the Board of Public Accountability:

The Wall Street Journal wrote, "The report said the printers didn't present their total demands until fifteen minutes before their old contract expired," but did not reprint, "It was not until 6:40 on the evening of December 7th [with the strike set for 2 a.m. December 8th] that the publishers made a complete offer to the printers. That offer totalled, in increased benefits and costs, $9.20 per man per week," including 55 cents a week in cash for the first year. (The employer, in strike stories, always "offers" and the union "demands." A publisher, for example, never "demands" that the union men agree to work for a four-bit raise; the union never "offers" to work for more.)

Now that I've achieved a life goal of sorts by quoting this in a piece of Formal Skolarly Writing, I hope y'all enjoy it too.

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This one looks like another example of how editors extend (or overextend) style rules. Clearly, it's both inaccurate and rude to suggest that all Spanish-speakers are Mexicans, so the editor reached for the polite way to say "Mexican" and got "Latino." Which, unfortunately, misses the point.

The lede is about the flu strain that has spread "from Mexico"; the people who are concerned are residents "with ties to Mexico"; the first Real Person quoted has family just outside the Mexican capital; an advocate quoted later in the story observes that "most people in the country illegally come from rural areas of Mexico and not Mexico City." The concerns in the story are legitimate, but more to the point, they're legitimately Mexican.

Cultural sensitivity in language tends to get a bad name, even in that alleged hotbed of creeping socialism known as the American newsroom. It's often derided as euphemistic, inaccurate or imprecise, even when it's none of those things. (I'm still waiting for someone to explain exactly what "African American" is supposed to be a euphemism for.) This hed, though, misses the boat precisely by being imprecise; it sounds as if it's about culture, but it needs to be about a country.

Sensitivity is an important attribute of language, but it's not the only attribute. By way of underscoring that, here's the last graf of the story:

Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said the disease could be carried by anyone. He said many non-Latinos traveling to Mexico could pick up the virus.

Here, I think, we are sinking into euphemism -- not the writer's or the speaker's, but the audience's. As the comments on the story* attest, for at least some of the readership, "Latino" is a Liberal Media euphemism for "dope-sucking, job-stealing illegal immigrant." If the idea is that flu can be brought into the sorority house by Buffy and Muffy as readily as by the guy mopping the kitchen after dinner, we could make that point more clearly -- as, indeed, "carried by anyone" does -- without implying that Chileans have some sort of immunity that isn't available to, say, Lithuanians. (And without providing cover to the biases of the knuckle-draggers.)

* Further evidence that the "comment" function should be disabled on all news stories, from now unto the end of time.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The weak slat under the bed

Here's another quote from A.J. Liebling, worth pondering in the occasional discussion of whether the government should intervene in some way to slow the collapse of newspaper journalism:

As an observer from outside I take a grave view of the plight of the press. It is the weak slat under the bed of democracy. It is an anomaly that information, the one thing most necessary to our survival as choosers of our own way, should be a commodity subject to the same merchandising rules as chewing gum, while armament, a secondary instrument of liberty, is a Government concern. A man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Aspirins for atoms

Over at You Don't Say the other day was an interesting question and a nicely tuned reply: Why not write more about good writing? Before doing just that for a measure or two, John points out that the idea (however regrettably) is sort of at cross purposes with the job: "Those of us in the dwindling ranks of copy editors are not engaged to sit at the desk for eight hours admiring the work. Our specialty is pathology; we are looking for things that have gone wrong."

True enough, but all else equal, we'd rather read good stuff than bad stuff. So to move the ball along a bit in line with John's examples, here's a nice bit of journalism-about-journalism: The Chicago Tribune, described by A.J. Liebling in January 1950.

The visitor to Chicago, awakening unalarmed in his hotel room and receiving the Tribune with his breakfast tray, takes a look at the headlines and finds himself at once transported into a land of somber horror, rather like that depicted by the science-mystery magazines, with additional points of resemblance to True Detective and The Musket Boys of Old Boston, a book about the Revolutionary War that I read when I was young. As he turns the pages of the Tribune, the stranger is likely to get the feeling that some of the people and events he is reading about superficially resemble people and events he remembers having read about in the world outside, but he never can be sure.

... The effect on the adrenal glands of the morning dip into the
Tribune's cosmos is amazing. The Tribune reader issues from his door walking on the balls of his feet, muscles tense, expecting attacks by sex-mad footpads at the next street corner, forewarned against the smooth talk of strangers with a British accent, and prepared to dive behind the first convenient barrier at the sound of a guided missile approaching -- any minute now -- from the direction of northern Siberia.

Sound like anything we know?

When you see two numbers ...

... do something to them. Sometimes one of those numbers isn't in the story, but it's usually close at hand:

A biography of Mr. Zinkhan, 47, on the university Web site said he was the co-author of two books, on consumption and electronic commerce, and had served as editor of The Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science and of The Journal of Advertising. He received a doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1981 and a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1974. He joined the faculty at the University of Georgia in 1994.*

The number you want to invite to the party is "2009," which you'll find in the folio line at the top of the page. Try subtracting the subject's age from that. Now compare the result to the year he got his undergraduate degree (1974). Precocious, huh?

I'm not even sure we should call it "math," since it's rarely more complicated than addition and subtraction, but -- DTFM. Every time. Please.

* His age is given as 47 in the national edn that we get up here, but it's 57 (which the AP had been using since Saturday) in the online version as of this writing. If you can shed light on when it was fixed, pls do.


Friday, April 24, 2009

March of the pronouns

A 30-year-old Pontiac man is in the Oakland County Jail and facing felony charges after authorities said he rammed a man’s car after finding his wife in the backseat with him.

You almost need a scorecard (or some extra fingers) to figure out which "he" goes with which "man."

For you outsiders? "Authorities said" isn't really part of the subordinate clause. It's acting like the British "claim quotes" -- sort of a ghostly sentence adverb, reminding us that there's some sort of privileged source to which (or whom) the otherwise potentially libelous assertion can be pinned.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sometimes it's just too easy

Hey, if you don't visit the comics section very often, be sure you check out the newly added "The Fox Nation," which is sort of like -- oh, imagine Fox News without its usual high levels of editing prowess and its veneer of adherence to actual journalistic norms. You'll get something like the centerpiece captured here: "Why does he smile at dictators?"

Got me there, Fox Nation! Because -- uh, it seemed like such a good idea at the time?

I think that's the real fun of News Corporation and all its affiliated products. To play Culture Wars the way Fox and its friends do, you really have to have the attention span of a garden slug. If you don't remember the characters in the photo at right, it's the guy who ended the Cold War, shown with a fairly good actor who ended up getting elected president a couple times.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Get me one while you're up

Tell me this is just coincidence, please.

What the president is getting is "flak," a noncount noun meaning more or less "grief" (originally from a German acronym for "antiaircraft cannon"). A "flack" is a shill. Time was, if you couldn't tell the difference, you weren't ready to write heds for the front page of a rag the caliber of the N&O, whence this example is drawn -- much less slot 1A heds or sign off on the page.

So surely it's mere chance (p = .875) that today also marks the appearance of a parody front honoring the latest victims of downsizing at the same paper.* The farewell mockup of the frontpage is a time-honored tradition** in newsrooms. But I've never seen a page for a few dozen people at once.***

It's an exceptionally good example of the farewell front, with almost enough sharp elbows thrown in almost enough faces. But the real, genuine, 50-cents-a-copy 1A makes the point even better: Sooner or later, you're going to be sorry you threw all your old hands over the side.

* And three million cheers to Romenesko for posting it.
** There's a particularly evil example in the lower gallery, actually. Strayhorn wrote the "Line of Death" peri lede. Of course.
*** I never worked at the N&O, so this casualty list isn't as personal as some of the other recent ones. I recognize a good number of names, though I wouldn't recognize their owners.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Diagramming party to action stations ...

... AP crime lede off the starboard bow!

A Boston University medical student was arrested Monday in the shooting death in a hotel of a masseuse and the robbery of another woman who both advertised their services on Craigslist.

Perhaps the AP is ignoring syntax in favor of squeezing out those taints of potential libel:

(This version CORRECTS that Markoff is a suspect in RI assault, sted connected to assault.)

Nice of the Trib to leave the advisory note in place, eh? That's why the second graf reads:

He is also suspected of being connected to an assault on a Las Vegas exotic dancer in Rhode Island last week.

Unless you're Fox, of course: Why waste time updating a perfectly good story just because he might not be guilty?

He is also connected to an assault on a Las Vegas exotic dancer in Rhode Island last week.

Anyway, glad to see the AP is keeping up with Those Kids and their Wacky Social Media:

A Facebook profile matching Markoff's identity, including his photograph, lists him as a 2007 graduate of State University of New York-Albany and in the 2011 class at BU.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Out-of-tune lede of the month

It's the new(!) improved(!) AP, covering the talk shows with wit, creativity and a direct phone link to the Planet Mxyzptlk:

Damn the tea bags. A top adviser to President Barack Obama takes a dim view of last week's anti-tax "tea parties," promoted by organizers in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party.

As a general rule, the lede isn't a good place to be cleverly ambiguous. "Damn those tea bags!" is one thing. "Damn the tea bags, full speed ahead" is another.

"The thing that bewilders me is this president just cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people. So I think the tea bags should be directed elsewhere because he certainly understands the burden that people face," David Axelrod said Sunday.

OK. I think we're at Door No. 2 (full speed ahead). And if that's the case, the AP has grossly overshot its mark. Adm. Farragut didn't complain that Confederate anger was misdirected. He took his fleet through the minefield. Could we have just a touch, maybe, of reckless defiance or bring-it-on daring somewhere in the interview? Or if no one wants to go quite that far, could we at least jaywalk a little on the way home from the studio?

This wouldn't be so worrisome if the wholesale bloodletting in U.S. newsrooms hadn't made wire editing -- in most cases -- a quaint relic of the past. It doesn't take much time or effort to fix this one. (Select the first sentence and hit "delete." Wasn't that easy?) But if your favorite news source has decided those units of time and effort are needed elsewhere,* then consarn those teabags! You're stuck with 'em.

* I'm not saying this is a wrong or unreasonable decision. A wire story isn't going to get you sued; a novice reporter on the cop beat might. DTFM.

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Crispy green snack

And the Elongated Yellow Fruit Award of the day goes to:

BUT I DON’ T LIKE CELERY: Nobody will make you eat some at the Celery Flats Interpretive Center in Portage.

It’s great place to learn about the role of the crispy green snack in Michigan history.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Slightly pregnant, sort of dead

Hey, all you S&W-bashers* out there: Don't throw out your copies of the Little Book just yet! Send 'em off to, which still seems to be having just a bit of trouble, headline-wise, telling the difference between "omit needless words" and "omit words."

Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between an "assassination" and an "assassination attempt." It's sort of like the difference between "murder" and "attempted murder": see, in one case, the attempt succeeds, and in the other, it doesn't. And if the victim is conscious and talking after surgery, that decision is pretty clear.

What it would take to remove the hedge "possible," I don't know. Perhaps the assailants who hosed the minivan down with automatic rifles were just trying to knock flyspecks off the finish. If there's some concern about that (or, realistically, some other shade of doubt that news practice simply can't eliminate), you could simply stick to the events and let readers' lurid little minds draw their own conclusions about motive. But don't imply someone's dead if your answer is "well, not really."

* Anniversary comment upcoming at some point, but not till some stuff gets done.

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Stupidest column of the year

Hard to imagine, given that it's only April and Charles Krauthammer, Maureen Dowd and Cal Thomas are still pounding away, but -- ladies and germs, I think we can go ahead and stop the balloting for Stupidest Column of the Year, because nobody's going to catch George Will:

On any American street, or in any airport or mall, you see the same sad tableau: A 10-year-old boy is walking with his father, whose development was evidently arrested when he was that age, judging by his clothes. Father and son are dressed identically – running shoes, T-shirts. And jeans, always jeans. If mother is there, she, too, is draped in denim.

Writer Daniel Akst has noticed and has had a constructive conniption. He should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has earned it by identifying an obnoxious misuse of freedom. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he has denounced denim, summoning Americans to soul-searching and repentance about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.

It is, he says, a manifestation of “the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby.” Denim reflects “our most nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings – the ones that prompted all those exurban McMansions now sliding off their manicured lawns and into foreclosure.”

Will is channeling some berk from the WSJ, who's channeling ... Esposito's inaugural address? OK, just so we're clear on that.

Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults (“Seinfeld,” “Two and a Half Men”) and cartoons for adults (“King of the Hill”).

... Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling – thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism – of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.

Maturity, elitism -- starting to form an idea about where he's going with this?

Edmund Burke – what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted “the decent drapery of life”; it is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim – said: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Ours would be much more so if supposed grown-ups would heed St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and St. Barack's inaugural sermon to the Americans, by putting away childish things, starting with denim.

So George Will is really just a sort of polysyllabic Glenn Beck with a bow tie? It all comes back to the arrogant guy in the White House? OK, got it.

You may, at this point, suggest that George Will is practicing the sophisticated art of satire. There's a slight problem with that. He isn't funny, and it really, really helps for satire to be funny. Spinal Tap is a snort a minute. "The Last Recall" is pitch-perfect deadpan. But George Will -- he could put you right off your fresh-fried Irish baby.

The last graf is too good to pass up:

(A confession: The author owns one pair of jeans. Wore them once. Had to. Such was the dress code for former Sen. Jack Danforth's 70th birthday party, where Jerry Jeff Walker sang his classic “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Music for a jeans-wearing crowd.)

Son, you can wear whatever you want out there. Mr. Monroe is going to wear a tie, all right?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

47 times its weight in excess stomach acid

A reminder from the Lower S.C. Bureau that proportions can be accurate without being complete or relevant. The chart appears to show more or less what Slate contends says it does: Health insurance premiums grew at six times the rate pay did across the study period. (I don't know what the orphan "2008" is doing down there on the X axis; Slate probably doesn't either.) The trouble is, without something on the Y axis, we can't tell if it's comparing increases of 0.6% and 0.1% or increases of 24% and 4%. I'm already scared; it'd be nice if I could be scared and informed at the same time.

This is the sort of stuff editors are paid to point out, and it's a useful reminder that dumb journalism online isn't a different kind of journalism. It's a different kind of dumb.

"I view all of these things online as part of the trend toward 'no copy editor needed' for our new Twitter/Digg/Yapp age," writes the burean chief. "I fear for the brains of our descendants." Me too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Here's a semi- regular off-topic update for interested parties. Think of it as sort of the HEADSUP-L pledge drive; regularly scheduled program- ming will continue shortly, but you can leave your credit card number in the comments if you're feeling guilty about not helping newspapers stay afloat or something. Or you can turn the page.

Anyway! April 15 is a special day around here for several reasons. Yes, there are those freedom-loving tea parties, and yes, it's the first day the local bistros can set out their sidewalk tables,* but it's also Bernieversary, whereby hangs a tale.

A bunch of the sharp undergraduates at the World's Most Refulgent J-School came in one morning to report a litter of abandoned** kittens under the hostas. Permission was granted*** to bring the little monsters indoors, and after a fairly consensual discussion, an overnight office stay and some minor tactical hoop-jumping, everybody**** had a forever home. Woodchuck (left) and Bernie -- formally, Woodward Woodward III and Bernstein J. Firecat -- moved into the cottage on the Lane on April 15, 2005. Usual Suspects will be happy to know that they have become upstanding young gentlemen.

It's Bernieversary because, well, Woodward has a genuinely iconic piece of American asphalt named after him (about a mile west of here, a few blocks east of the midtown bureau). So we had to equalize where we could. Either way, best Bernieversary regards to you members of the original rescue party and all you other cheezburger-eaters out there.

* Honestly. In about a month, this is going to sound a lot better than it does now.
** Not by hoomans; Language Czarina is fairly sure she saw their mom doing the Mehitabel thing around campus on several later occasions.
*** Where would journalism be without the passive voice?
**** At last report, sister Pickle was a happy farm kitteh in central Missouri.


Wanna buy a bridge?

The (hem, kaff) liberal media seem to be taking the Fox bait quite happily:

South Carolina is at the center of a national grass-roots debate on Tax Day, with thousands expected to attend two rallies in the city today protesting the country’s tax burden and tax system.

Here's a particularly naive entry from the nest of commie spies at Stonewall and Tryon:

Some groups like “Fair Tax,” which seeks to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, will try to sign up members today. But there appears to be no common agenda other than reducing taxes and spending.

Let's have a look at the discourse and see if there's a "common agenda" in there:

Alleged columnist Cal Thomas: While the deficit last week raced past $1 trillion, the federal government and many state governments are trying to pry more of our money from us so they can finish creating a dependency culture from which we'll never escape.

Fox blogger Dan Gainor: It’s obvious the left understands. ... To see a grassroots movement rise up against Democrats’ crazy spending just a couple months into their mis-administration terrifies them.

Fox blogger Peter Roff: Just like King George III, Obama and the Democrats want to make us believe they are doing it for our own good and in our own best interests.

Fox blogger Andrea Tantaros: The message is simple: repeal the pork, cut taxes and cut spending. But there is much more at stake than the money. The impact these actions will have on our culture is key. Massive government control is a clear threat to our liberties and our values of American exceptionalism.

And that would mean?

As power is increasingly transferred to the government, it will seek to dilute and destroy our most precious values — from the sanctity of marriage to the right to bear arms, free speech and other fundamentals of our constitution. The Obama Doctrine seeks to do just that: strip power from people, put government — and ultimately the tenants of radicalism — in control.

Are things starting to sink in yet? It isn't the taxes.* It's the colored fella in Washington who wants to take all your money and impose European communist socialism and quarter British naval officers in your home so he can gay-marry your sons to them! WAKE UP, AMERICA!!!!!

You don't have to take the commentators' word for it. Fox has kindly put all its news coverage together for your convenience. You can find out how to organize a successful protest, which craven solons are sitting it out, how the liberal ACORNs are planning to identity-theft protesters so Obama can send them to Guantanamo -- everything a carefully orchestrated movement needs. As Fox has made clear, it might say spending on the surface, but it's all about the "intervention."** If you're still not clear on the distinction, I'm looking out the window at a really neat bridge that could be yours for a song.

I'm looking forward to the tea party coverage. I'm expecting careful crowd counts, lots of questions about the actual impact of tax rates, and quotes out the yazoo whenever the word "grassroots" appears.

* By the way? If your story forgets to ask the mad-as-hell protesters whether their federal taxes have gone up or down in the past two months, it's incomplete.
** Isn't it cool that "intervention" started showing up during the week that two states took the distinctly anti-interventionist step of not restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples? Reporters could ask about that when they're covering tea parties too!

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Metric fail

When math zombies attack, courtesy of Fox:

The tests were conducted at 40 miles per hour (17 kilometers per liter), representing a severe crash.

You can see where the poor rimster is going with the idea:

Sales of small cars soared when gas prices topped $4 per gallon ($1.05 per liter) last year. ... The small cars are affordable — prices of the three cars tested range from about $12,000 to $18,000 — and typically achieve 30 miles per gallon (13 kilometers per liter) or more.

... but a little bit of RTFS never hurt anyone, did it?

[UPDATE: As of this writing, the story has been promoted to centerpiece on the Fox opening page, with the hed "NOT SO SMART?" -- a reminder that real Americans want SUVs after all. But it remains an indicator of the complexity of news practice that Fox is editing AP copy to include metric equivalents. Isn't the metric system what they use in -- like, socialist Europe?]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

No, don't

Some days they just crop up all over the country:

Call it a tale of two Charlotte churches – one black, one white; one traditional, one not.

Call it fear of filing.

If you didn't get the memo, "Call it" is on the list of permanently forbidden ledes. Shun it.


What rough beast?

Behold, today's centerpiece from the Nation's Other Newspaper of Record!

It's generally true that news about the Big Wide World just doesn't cut it in the provinces anymore. Yes, the pirates have been on the front three times this week -- twice as the lead -- at one of our favorite stops, but that says less about the value of world news than it does about the importance of being able to say PIRATES! on 1A. And the new! improved! thrice-weekly version of the local Major Metropolitan Daily has redesigned news even farther out of public view, even though the world is so close that I can actually see another country from my office window.* But surely it's a sign that the center cannot hold when the Washington Post greets us with:

Who let the dog out?

'Scuse us while we hork noisily on the living room carpet.

* I can see Tiger Stadium too, but that doesn't mean I ought to run for vice president of baseball.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

O tempora, o sophomores

One side of a cell-phone conversation, outside the library:

He kinda reminded me of Marko. You know, Marko Groucho.

Every faculty contract has one. That's why they call it a sanity clause.

Through the looking-glass

So much Fox, so little time!

We're fed up and we're not gonna take it anymore.

Such is the rallying cry building across the country as taxpayers take a stand against what they see as reckless spending in Washington -- all part of a peculiar and rather sudden movement called "tea parties."

Some small, some large, locals* converge at the parties to voice their frustration over the federal government's economic policies. The protests have sprouted up from coast-to-coast and city-to-city since late February.

"People are getting killed -- they're getting hammered with taxes and it's not the way this country is supposed to be run.** ... We want to fight back," said Kristina Mancini, who's helping organize the April 15 rally in Fishkill, N.Y.

Don't miss Fox's commanding grasp of the historical analogy!

The historical parallels may seem sparse. America is no longer a colony. It is not ruled by a king.

But just as the 18th century decrees of the King of England drew outrage from American colonists, several acts of modern U.S. government intervention have stirred similar upheaval.

The Stamp Act? Now it's the Wall Street bailout.

The Tea Act? Now it's the $787 billion stimulus package.

The Quartering Act? Now it's the pork-filled omnibus spending bill.

The Boston Massacre? That would have to be the proposed $3.55 trillion 2010 budget, seen by tea partiers as a fiscal massacre.

The Sons of Liberty of today is led by people like Rick Santelli, the CNBC reporter widely credited with helping spark the tea-party fever nationwide (though tea parties were being held before Santelli plugged them).

... Though he was mocked by the White House, Santelli might as well have yelled, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Digest the thing in its delightful entirety. Admire the skills of Judson Berger, whose reporting prowess elevated the Chia Pet story from obscurity to top-of-the-front play. Garnish liberally*** with comments. Chase with a shot of Deputy ME Bill Sammon recycling last fall's Joe Biden story like -- well, like a veritable Joe the Recycler. Every meal a banquet on Planet Fox!

* Mostly large, I'm betting. Best dangler I've seen all week.
** It isn't?
*** He'll be here all week, folks; don't forget to tip.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

It's not the economy, stupid

Put another way: Sometimes it is the economy and sometimes it isn't, but if the AP insists on tying every statistical event to These Tough Economic Times, we're going to end up with a lot of ledes that sound alike:

WASHINGTON -- An economic downturn can have a bright side: U.S. highway deaths in 2008 fell to their lowest level since John F. Kennedy was president.

WASHINGTON -- One thing the recession has accomplished for Americans: It's taken some of the hassle out of flying.

I'd consider it a genuine sign of hope if news outlets started taking pride again in giving AP copy a hard edit. I'm not waiting by the mailbox, though.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

No, that's your job

Once more, as if you needed it, a reminder that more looks will always be better than fewer looks.

You don't back-read copy because you assume everyone will screw up every day. You back-read because you know someone will screw up someday.

Lying about lying about statistics

If you're a Usual Suspect or other regular reader, you've probably noticed that we spend a lot of time complaining about quantitative survey research. Let me offer a general proposition to put that into perspective: You can complain about anything in a poll except the results.

It's legitimate to attack dishonest methods, stupid interpretation, biased discussion, or whatever. But if a poll has been conducted according to a few basic professional standards, you can't blame a result you don't like on the alleged biases of the people who reported the research. That's just another way of lying with statistics, and to support that assertion, we're going to introduce somebody else who complains about surveys: L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center:

It has become almost amusing, watching how the so-called “news” media are manipulating their own polls to keep the political weather sunny for their hero. The Washington Post kicked off President Barack Obama’s European trip with the headline “Blame For Downturn Not Fixed on Obama.” Of course, what was “fixed” was the poll itself.

They did the usual tricks for a more liberal sample of “public opinion” – they polled on the weekend and oversampled Democrats (36 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican). By themselves, these things are shameless – but expected.

Let's stop the tape in mid-graf for a moment. A big assertion -- there's a set of "usual tricks" employed to get liberal results in polls -- is followed by two specific ones the Post is alleged to have indulged in. Two minor problems are worth noting: Those "tricks" don't produce a "more liberal sample," and the Post didn't do either of them.

As a rule, if you're going to lie, you should lie about stuff that's hard to check, not stuff that's easy to check. The story and the breakout available online both say the poll was in the field for four days, Thursday through Sunday. (Maybe that's the weekend at the Media Resource Center; nice work if you can get it.) That's twice as long as Opinion Dynamics stays in the field when it polls for Fox, but that doesn't make two-day surveys a trick for finding a conservative sample. Other things equal, a shorter poll is probably more susceptible to error* than a longer one. If you're in the field Friday and Saturday, you might get a less representative sample on age, and that could bias the results if your issue is one on which younger people are notably more conservative or liberal. But I can't imagine why polling on weekends only would reliably produce a more liberal sample,** and at any rate, that's not what the Post did. C'mon, L. Brent: If you're going to make stuff up, at least make us work at it a little.

The next accusation is more serious and a bit more sinister. He's saying the Post is lying about methods. It's reporting a random sample, but it really went looking for extra Democrats to get the results it wanted. That's pretty serious; stupidity isn't a firing offense, but research misconduct is. Conveniently, it looks as if this assertion too is entirely made up.

First, party identification isn't gender. It isn't evenly balanced in the population, and if you expect it to be, you aren't paying attention. Fox/Opinion Dynamics found an 11-point difference in November '07 and a 42%-33% result in July. So it seems safe to conclude that significantly more people identify as Democrats than as Republicans these days, no matter whether Fox or the Washington Post asks them. Second, there is a technique called oversampling, and legitimate surveys sometimes use it, but they don't use it to skew proportions in the overall sample. (If you want to do that, it's easier and cheaper to just make the numbers up.) They use it to make subgroup results tighter.*** If you're going to accuse people of a research crime, L. Brent, do them the courtesy of getting the crime right.

And still that wasn’t enough of a slant. Check out the way this question was asked by the Post pollsters.

“How much of the blame do you think [fill in the blank] deserves for the country’s economic situation?” The choices were corporations, banks, consumers, the Bush team, and the Obama administration. There’s a built-in pro-Obama bias in there already: assigning blame to Obama for the current economy when he’s been in office for nine weeks just seems harsh to most people.

Whether or not something "just seems harsh" to "most people" is an empirical question. You can measure it, which means "well, that's how it seems to me" isn't a very useful form of evidence. And given the level of invective from the droolers on the topic over the past few months, it seems this is a public-opinion question worth exploring: How many people agree with the Fox/Limbaugh narrative about the "Obama recession"?

You might have concluded by now that L. Brent Bozell III is a liar and a buffoon,**** and you'd be right. In a way, that's unfortunate, because he's about to stumble on a fairly important point, though he doesn't seem to know why:

These are fair descriptions, I think we can say. But now check how they identified the problem when it was a politician: Should the public blame Bush for “inadequate regulation of the financial industry”? Or is Obama to blame for “not doing enough to turn the economy around”?

What kind of left-wing pollster wrote these questions? Is Obama “not doing enough”? We’re being buried in trillion-dollar Obama proposals and he should be faulted for “not doing enough”? How about the crazy idea that maybe, just maybe, he’s doing too much? This question makes sense only if the goal is to assist Obama politically.

Here are the choices the Post poll offered. Raise your hand when you see the problem:
a. Banks and other financial institutions, for taking unnecessary risks
b. The Bush administration, for inadequate regulation of the financial industry
c. Large business corporations, for poor management decisions
d. Consumers, for taking on too much debt
e. The Obama administration, for not doing enough to turn the economy around

Bozell's point is that there's no response for his (and Limbaugh's, and Fox's) belief that it's Obama's fault; the country is panicking as the colored fella sheds his civil veneer and reveals the heathen commie rat beneath. And he's right (about the lack of a category for his preference, that is). In generalizable terms, two-headed questions like these are methodologically inept because they aren't exclusive and exhaustive. Which one do you pick if you blame Obama for being a socialist, or Bush for screwing up everything else about the country, or Reagan for setting the country on the destructive course his acolytes pine for today?

A better way to handle this one -- drawn from the long list of advice that's worth every cent the Post has paid for it -- is to separate the questions about which agents are to blame (Bush, business, banks, consumers, Obama) and which characteristics are to blame (deregulation, incompetence, greed, stupidity, Stalinism). That could tell you something interesting about an important phenomenon -- how many people are taking what they hear from the Beck/Hannity/Limbaugh axis to heart? -- without leaving an enormous mass of error hanging around the center of the question.

I'm not prepared to call it a clear-cut example of ideological bias on the Post's part. Not that the Post doesn't have ideological biases, which it does, but that this one looks more like basic cluelessness. Even asked correctly, what would make a story like "two months into the new administration, most people don't blame the new guy" worth 1A play and a hed?

That's too bad, because when the poll sticks to the basics, it actually throws off some interesting results:

The number of Americans who believe that the nation is headed in the right direction has roughly tripled since Barack Obama's election, and the public overwhelmingly blames the excesses of the financial industry, rather than the new president, for turmoil in the economy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The "right direction" result is pretty striking, making it even more regrettable that the Post put such weight on the sloppily worded blame question. (For the record, the public "blames" big business as much as it blames the bankers, and consumers slightly but not significantly more than the Bush administration.) Thus, it's harder to complain about all the manifest lies and biases in Bozell's critique, and there are quite a few:

So Obama’s trying to implement socialism at 120 miles per hour, and with a straight face, the Post reported that 62 percent of those surveyed still see Obama as a “new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public’s money,” while 32 percent see him as an “old-style tax-and-spend Democrat.” An accurate assessment by the Post would conclude that a) Obama’s accelerated socialist policies make most conservatives pine for the good old days of “tax-and-spend Democrats” and b) 62 percent of the public has no idea what is going on in Washington – primarily because they rely on outlets like the Post for their “news.” (Here, Bozell is not complaining that the newspaper made things up; he's complaining that it didn't make up the sorts of things he wanted somebody to make up.)

Then there were poll questions that the Post editors didn’t want on the front page – or even anywhere in the poll story by political reporter Dan Balz and pollster Jon Cohen. On the front page, Post readers saw the big news – a bar graph showing that 60 percent approve of how Obama is handling the economy. But if you look at the Internet and read the actual poll, there’s another number the Post deliberately left out. Pollsters asked “Do you approve or disapprove of the federal government's overall response to the economic situation?” Forty-nine percent said they supported the overall federal government response.

So who, boys and girls, is the “federal government? It’s controlled by a Democratic president, and a strongly Democratic Congress. One could clearly state, then, that less than half of the public supports President Obama’s economic agenda. But the Post ignored this so as to trumpet the opposite.

Yes, one could state that. And, in a way, one could state that the Post "ignored" it. On the other hand, the Post also ignored the doubling in the proportion approving of the federal government's overall response since mid-December (when, boys and girls, the president was a "Republican"). "Strongly approve" has quadrupled. It's a bit difficult for a grownup to conclude that the Post is selectively presenting evidence to make Obama look good if it left this part out.

Clowns like L. Brent Bozell III make it hard on the rest of us. When the Post (or the NYT) hears that somebody's bitching about its poll reporting, it has every reason to conclude in advance that the complainant is a paid liar who wouldn't know a confidence level if it jumped up and bit him (or her) in the arse. If you, in your best indoor voice, want to raise a question about instrument design or the appropriate interpretation of results at the fuzzy edge of the confidence interval, the Post is likely to mistake you for the former. That's not fun for you, and it's not much help for the Post either.

Good reporting about the press is like good reporting about polls: Know the rules, answer to the evidence, describe what you see rather than what you want to see. If L. Brent and the gang over at the Media Research Center ever figure that out, they might have something useful to say.

* Meaning, simply, variation you can't account for by stuff you can measure or control.
** If you know of any lit to the contrary, drop me a note, OK?
*** Quick example. Say 10% of the population has some characteristic (ethnicity, home language, whatever) of interest. An off-the-shelf sample size of 800 yields a confidence interval ("margin of sampling error") of 3.5 points at 95% confidence. For your minority, though, it's over 11 points -- so a 50% result in the sample could accurately reflect a value anywhere from 39% to 61% in the whole population. If you keep sampling until you have 200 respondents from the minority, the confidence interval is down to around 7 points, and you can make more precise comparisons about subgroup preferences. When you talk about the whole sample, though, you weight the subgroup response to reflect the subgroup's proportion in the population. Make sense? This might be on the final.
**** Hey, I said stupidity and dishonesty were different phenomena; I didn't say they couldn't co-occur.


Friday, April 03, 2009

Bananas, snow, eggs

Just in from the North Olentangy Valley bureau, a seasonal addition to the Annals of Elegant Variation.

As the note is not signed, we are not sure whether to credit operative "Boris" or operative "Natasha," but either way -- how 'bout the Heels?


Thursday, April 02, 2009

A possible nother one

Here's a neat one from the 10 a.m. news on your local radio:

Police in Belleville have a suspected gunman in custody and are looking for a possible nother one.

Same process as "it's a whole nother team with Lawson back," but it has a journalistic function that makes it a bit more interesting. Compare it with this lede from the Brave Newsless World today:

A suspected U.S. drone fired two missiles Wednesday in the attack near the Afghan border with Pakistan.

That doesn't mean "who was that masked drone?" (If the AP actually saw a drone fire two missiles at a Taliban hideout, you should put your money on "American" forthwith.) "Suspected" doesn't modify anything in particular; it's really sort of a sentence adverb, meaning more or less "This is what happened, but until someone official says it, we have to acknowledge that we don't know it for sure."

What does it have to do with the possible nother gunman? American news language doesn't have a systematic process for hedging. What we do is send up the occasional signal that something in a clause isn't certain, and it's not necessarily the thing that the adjective or adverb points to. The cops aren't looking for the Man Who Wasn't There. "Possible nother gunman" has that same sort of sentence-adverbial function; it writes out into something like "It's possible that there was another gunman," and listeners are on their own to attach it correctly to the idea that if there was, the cops are looking for him.*

The British have it easier.** Compare these heds:
Suspected US missiles hit alleged Taliban hideout (Globe and Mail, using AP)
Many killed in 'US drone attack' (BBC)
That's the attributional quote function remarked on earlier. It doesn't mark a direct quote, and it's not a mocking quote, after the fashion of "The 'stimulus' plan"; it means "the stuff inside the quotes is what's asserted." One of my favorites:

Writer is 'killed by face op'
We know there's a writer, and we know she's dead, and we know she had plastic surgery, but the causal relationship is the thing the survivors are asserting. Hence the quotes.

I don't think we'll get "a suspected nother case of salmonella poisoning," but you can't rule it out.

* Or her; it could, after all, be a female gunman. Though he or she is apparently no longer a "lone gunman."
** When they're not using AP suggested heds, at least.