Friday, August 02, 2013

On making stuff up

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear -- specifically, the late innings of the 2012 presidential campaign, when somehow it became all the rage in (ahem) some circles to declare that any quantitative data you found unpleasant had been baked. The polls were crooked, and long-established gubmint surveys were being fabricated at the order of the Kenyan usurper and his cabal of Chicago street thugs.

Let's look in on a slightly less spittle-flecked version of those claims: even if the numbers are valid, the craven librul media will spin them on command from Kenya Chicago the White House. We had some questions at the time about the assertions of directional bias made by Kevin Hassett, director of economic-policy* studies for the American Enterprise Institute (and, by some wild coincidence, a Romney adviser). Here, he's discussing the two main Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys on employment, reported the first Friday of each month: the "household" survey, which produces the percentage called the unemployment rate, and the "establishment" survey, which tracks nonfarm payroll employment (expressed as jobs added or lost):

Back when President Bush presided over a jobless recovery, the household survey tended to show better news. At the time, every media organization carefully emphasized the establishment numbers, and warned that the household numbers are suspect. That, of course, is what happens when a Republican is in office. For President Obama, you can expect a household survey lovefest. The AP story that went up at 8:33, of course, emphasized the household survey, even adding, “The decline could help Obama, who is coming off a disappointing debate against Mitt Romney.” Get ready for more of the same.

There are two good reasons for making claims about what "every media organization" does. You might have looked at a representative amount of evidence and found reliable support for a valid prediction. On the other hand, if you've judged the mix of fear and gullibility in your target audience correctly, you can basically make up whatever you want as long as you massage the proper biases. Have a look at today's coverage above (CNN, the Times and the Post) and see if you can guess which factor is in play.

I'm not seeing much of a lovefest for the household rate there, despite its improvement from last month.** Nor, of course, am I contending that those three represent "every" media organization -- but I would say they're more than enough to scupper the universal bias claimed by our friends at the National Review. It isn't true now, and it hasn't been true going back to, oh, fall 2000. What emphasis you might have seen in October was as prominent in the right-wing press as in the mainstream (when it wasn't being jostled by claims of number-cooking), which ought to suggest that if there's a bias in play, it's less about signals from Kenya than about news's orientation toward the different and the controversial.

Granted, this risks becoming a disproportionate amount of time spent on one bush-league fabrication. But given our cherished marketplace model of political communication, when someone sets up a stall to peddle conspiracies, it's nice to walk by and tell the customers that he's making it up. Perhaps the stall down the way will have tar and feathers.

* No, you don't need the hyphen. Sheez.
** If anyone wants to propose a moratorium on "ticked up" and "ticked down" for BLS survey results, I'm in.

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