Friday, August 14, 2009

Town hall talk: If 7.267 was 9

This one's evidently a big deal over at Fox, so let's spend a bit of time pondering what it might mean for the president to be so verbose that he outtalks his audience by "nearly 9 to 1" at a town hall meeting.

How do we know it's a big deal? There's the amount of time it spent at the top of the front page, for one thing. The upper view is from about 7 p.m. (EDT) Thursday, the middle from about 7:30 this morning, the bottom from around 11 this morning.* It's not only been prominent for a while, it's been tweaked a lot to get the tone right (sort of like comparing heds from different editions of a newspaper). It carries a staff byline (with a second staffer contributing), which usually signals a lot of attention. It's drawn more than 1,600 comments as of this writing. And it's ... well, we can certainly say it's original. If you didn't know better, you'd be tempted to mistake it for journalism.

So, what do you find if you click along to "'Town Halls' a chance for the president, not the public, to vent"? Let's see:

Much has been made of the chance for true, interactive democracy offered by the freewheeling town hall format that lawmakers are using in health care forums across the country.

But what the White House is calling a "town hall meeting" does not quite follow in the tradition of the public-driven forums that sprouted centuries ago in New England.

It's more like a press conference for the public.

In an orderly fashion, selected members of the audience pose brief questions, and the president elaborates.

And elaborates. And elaborates.

A look at President Obama's health care "town hall" Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., shows the president out-spoke his audience by a ratio of nearly 9-to-1.

Here's the scorecard.

Obama: 8,619 words.

Audience: 1,186 words. (Do you get something more like 7.267 to 1 when you divide these? Funny, I do too.)

That's hardly the kind of even-handed exchange of ideas that marked the town meetings of colonial America.

Let's stop the tape here for a moment and sum up what we're asserting or implying (aside from 7 equals 9, which might just be Fox's routine incompetence, rather than Fox's routine dishonesty). First, that the "freewheeling town hall format" is a chance for genuine interactive democracy. Second, that Obama's not only less brave than Congress, he's spurning the ideas of the Founding Fathers. And third -- the real point of the story -- we can prove it with numbers: Obama isn't just talky, he's specifically, statistically talkier than his handpicked audience, so he really must be as arrogant, narcissistic and self-absorbed as the George Wills and Charles Krauthammers of the world have been saying all along. So 9-to-1 (all right, 7.3-1 if you're going to be picky) must be a relevant number.

Let's take the first two together. "Town hall meeting" means something different in the era of thoroughly mediated politics than it does in the parts of New England that still hold them. I was tempted to date the current flowering of town halls to the relentlessly self-promoting Clinton era, and a glance at Lexis finds terms like "town hall style" and "town hall meeting" reaching the news columns of the prestige press by the early to mid-1990s. (Elite papers tend to be warier of things that look like neologisms than the popular press; AP was using "town hall" in the Carter days.) In general, they aren't outcroppings of 18th-century democracy. It's a stretch at best to think of them as the "people's forum," and invoking some "even-handed exchange of ideas" from colonial days is just silly.

But that's not the point; the point is the numbers, because -- of course! -- numbers don't lie. Even when they're correctly calculated, though, their precision is deceptive. We don't know how the Obama-to-audience ratio compares to similar speakers, but that's only part of the problem.

For comparison, let's look at a couple of town halls from the younger Bush's first year (Dec. 4, 2001, and Jan. 5, 2002, both transcripts archived at CNN). It's a little risky to make exact comparisons, because Fox doesn't say much about how it handles the data or the challenges that transcripts pose. (For example, how do you count an exchange when all or part of the question is unrecorded because the speaker is off-mike?) But there's enough there to draw a few conclusions.

Does Obama (7.27-1) outtalk his audience more than Bush? Depends on which Bush appearance; I got 5.00-1 for December 2001 and 12.46-1 the following month. Bush's aggregate is 6.81-1 (the January meeting was shorter). Fox also provides a word count for Obama's opening and closing statements, so we can compare the Q&A sections only. On that measure, they're even closer: Obama, 4.19-1, Bush 4.08-1. (Yes, opening statements eat up a lot of the variance; Bush's were 1,496 and 3,685 words.) Absent some more data on Obama, I can't say whether a difference of a tenth of a word is statistically significant here, but I'll happily suggest that is is not practically significant.

The bigger point, though, is: What does it mean to talk more than your audience at a town hall? Here's an exchange in which Bush talks less than his questioner:

QUESTION: I don't have a comment, I have a question. And actually I don't have a question, I have a comment. (BUSH: OK.) You've been doing a good job for the United States. Can you shake my hand?
BUSH: Yes. I will in a minute. You want to do it right now? I'll do better, I'll give you a kiss. You're a sweet girl. Thank you. Yes, ma'am?

Here's one in which question and answer are right at (what looks like) the standard 1-to-4 ratio, but it underscores a real problem with blind word-counting: What exactly are we measuring?

Q: Mr. President, I'm a Navy chaplain serving with Marines in Twentynine Palms, California. I am also honored to have you as my commander-in-chief.
BUSH: Thank you (APPLAUSE) Your question?
Q: My question is very simple. How can we as pastors pray specifically for you and your family?**

A presidential "town hall," we might want to surmise, is going to involve a lot of reverential awe, no matter who's involved or who's talking.

Summary? This is the classic sort of story that distinguishes the stuff that Fox does from real journalism. It lets Fox side with the little guy (and, of course, the Founders) against the elites. It's about a cultural construct (Obama the out-of-touch narcissist) that's central to the Fox audience. It waves a number around without providing the context that lets people judge it. It's exactly what a really enthusiastic and deeply dishonest propaganda organization would do.

* And on a Google alert last night, prompting a query from reader Sean, to whom thanks.
** First one of you that says "backwards" is in big, big trouble.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those of us who live in New England, or at least those parts of New England that still practice direct democracy, it's "Town Meeting". A "town hall meeting" has no connection to what happens at Town Meeting (well, other than the first and last words of the NP). In Massachusetts, but not Vermont, "Town Meeting" is also the name of the local governing body (consisting of the entire body of the citzenry, at least in smaller towns); in both of those states, the primary purpose of the meeting is to discuss, and then take a binding vote on, the town budget.

We now return to your regularly-scheduled Fox-debunking.

8:30 PM, August 14, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

In a somewhat feeble defense of Fox's arithmetic, if you round off the numbers to one significant digit, you get 9000/1000, which is indeed 9 to 1. I'd be inclined to let that slide.

5:12 PM, August 15, 2009  

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