Friday, January 29, 2010

Consumes 47 times its own weight in ...

Behold the latest in hard-hitting political journalism (blended with quantitative content analysis, oh yeah) from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network!

Much attention has been given to President Obama's persistent use of "I" when giving speeches to sell his administration's agenda. Is he taking responsibility -- or, as his critics say, is he still in campaign mode? is tracking the president's speeches all this month and will report back after each to see whether The "I's" Have It.

Let's get the obvious journalistic fraud out of the way before addressing the fun stuff. No, "much attention" has not been paid to Obama's "persistent use of 'I'" (which is sort of like his persistent breathing; if you speak English, you use "I" persistently). Charles Krauthammer mentioned "I" last night, in Fox's analysis of the State of the Union address, and George Will has brought it up frequently, but two hacks isn't a measure of "much attention." And the "critics" don't call this a sign of "campaign mode"; they've persistently held it up as a measure of presidential narcissism. But our point here ought to be the numbers, which demonstrate more or less beyond the shadow of a doubt that Fox is more like an advertising agency than a news organization.

Remember hearing that Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid? Sounds impressive, unless you bother with small stuff like (a) whether 47 times the weight of a Rolaids amounts to much in the way of excess stomach acid and (b) whether "47 times" is more, less, or about the same as the handiest Brand X antacid (or placebo). Fox, of course, doesn't want you to think about that sort of thing. It wants you to think what Krauthammer and Will and the commenters think:

Barry the egocentonic malignant narcissist.
Terrible speech, but typical of this narcissist.
Is anyone really surprised that oduma is so self centered!!
He is a narcissistic egomaniac hellbent on getting his own way. God help our country.
I, I, I, me, me, me... why can't the man just lead -- he's president!!!
Narcissist and delusional, thats out president.

If you want to do journalism or content analysis, on the other hand, you start with the questions Rolaids and Fox leave out: Is that a lot, and what does it mean if it is? Obama said "I" 96 times in this appearance, we're told. Judging from the transcript, that's right: I get 96 instances of "I" pronouns (including "I'll," "I'm" and "I've"; "me," "my" and "mine" apparently don't matter to Fox). In an address of 3,399 words, that comes out to about 2.8%. Which means?

Let's turn to our friends at the Log, where Mark Liberman has been keeping track of Will's mendacity on this topic with appropriate scholarly detachment.* It's a little higher than Obama using "I" (2.1%) or first-person singular pronouns generally (2.65%) in his first press conference, and higher than Obama using first-person singular pronouns in his Olympics address (2.3%). By comparison, in his first two press conferences, Bush the younger was at 3.58% for "I," 4.49% for first-person singular pronouns all told. With a bunch more examples, we could probably determine whether the within-subject and between-subject variations are significant.**

That's statistical significance, not practical significance, which leads us to the validity question: Does pronoun use in presidential speech measure anything we ought to know about, and if so, what? First off, thanks to Jamie Pennebaker's guest Log post, we know that a president who used "I" a lot would be a pretty normal guy:
Across thousands of natural conversations that we have recorded, transcribed, and analyzed, the word “I” is consistently the most frequently used word (averaging 4.73% of all words, compared with 0.56% “me” and 0.69% “my”).
That's only relevant in the context of what "I" means, though. Not all "I" uses are equal. These aren't the same "I":

I mean -- I mentioned this last night -- none of us wanted to have to stabilize the banking sector, particularly since they helped create this mess.

and the "I" in "So that, you know, 'you lose, I win' mentality" isn't either of them. Pennebaker offers a detailed look at what different sorts of "I" mean, with this conclusion:
Since his election, Obama has remained consistent in using relatively few I-words compared to other modern U.S. presidents. His usage is overwhelmingly gentle-I as opposed to sledgehammer-I. Contrary to pronouncements by various media experts, Obama is neither “inordinately fond” of FPS (George Will, Washington Post, 6/7/2009) nor exhibiting “the full emergence of a note of … imperial possession” (Stanley Fish, NYT, 6/7/2009). Instead, Obama’s language suggests self-assurance and, at the same time, an emotional distance.
Fox, in short, is presenting a Rolaids ad, not a news story. It's scrupulously faithful to the number it presents while lying about every possible matter of context and implication. And that's a bigger deal than it might seem, because Fox is the arm of the party that passes itself off as a member of the press. It has all the simulacra of news -- the balancing routines, the facticity, the distinction between reporting and commentary, the displacement of judgments to "critics" or "some say" -- but that's the lab coat that turns an actor into a doctor who tells you what "doctors recommend." Please, do not pass up the chance to ridicule Fox and all its heirs and assigns at every opportunity.

* I don't know; maybe he throws things at the cats too.
** Pennebaker's data suggest that Obama's Tampa speech is right at his first-person-singular average (2.88%). Bush was significantly higher than Obama on all the relevant pronouns.

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7:07 AM, January 29, 2010  
Anonymous oldfeminist said...

If he used fewer I's than average, they'd use it as proof that he's focusing on blaming others.

4:31 PM, January 29, 2010  
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