Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sweet dreams

Let's just enjoy Fox's copy editing before we get to the substance, shall we?

“Anthony Brown means eight more years of Martin O’Malley,” Carter said. “They are two pees in a pod.”

Because, after all, the point isn't Fox's playful sense of  language and bladder activity; it's the habit of running made-up stories about one political office or another that's on the brink of being plucked from the evildoers' grasp. These aren't lies in the sense of making stuff about pronoun frequency. They're more like bedtime stories: not falsifiable claims about how the world is, but instructive tales about how the world ought to work. And since all opinions are  equal, a friendly interpretation of the evidence is as good as any other. Right, Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

The campaign for Maryland GOP gubernatorial nominee Larry Hogan earlier this week enthusiastically predicted that a win Tuesday would be the surprise, upset victory of the midterm elections.

And it might well be correct.

Well, sure. It could be correct about how surprising a win would be without actually predicting a win. But that wasn't the point, was it?

Left off essentially everybody’s list of hot governors’ races, the tightening Maryland contest has now captured the national spotlight with big outside money and A-list politicians coming in to close the deal for Hogan or Democratic nominee Anthony Brown, who has served eight years as Gov. Martin O’Malley’s lieutenant governor.

... Brown had led the race by double digits from the start. But recent polls -- including one by The Baltimore Sun in mid-October that indicated Brown ahead by just 7 percentage points -- have shown his lead starting to slip.

However, the turning point seemed to occur after a Republican-sponsored poll released Monday showed Hogan trailing Brown by just 2 percentage points, 46-to-44 percent.

Hmm. A week ago Saturday, Virginia's Senate race was getting even bigger play, with a lot of the same storytelling themes: "polls" are invoked without the sort of corroborating evidence they need, momentum is cherry-picked, and the good guy gets to rehearse his virtues while the bad guy either couldn't be reached* or "did not return calls seeking comment":

Republican Ed Gillespie is making a tight race out of his ambitious plan to defeat Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, slicing deep into the incumbent’s lead in the final days to re-emerge as a player in the GOP set piece to take the Senate.
That's a heartening narrative, you have to admit. Does it have any basis in reality?

... But with 10 days to go before Election Day, Gillespie, who according to a recent poll has cut the lead to single digits, feels confident about winning and is in no mood to declare a moral victory for what Washington war room strategists refer to as “expanding the playing field.”

The "recent poll" is never cited, but it really doesn't have to be. None of the available surveys from the two months before the story was written suggest any sort of deep slicing (indeed, in a more recent survey that Fox ignored, the Libertarian in the race was far outrunning Gillespie among millennial voters). Granted, the most recent survey -- in the field Oct. 23-29, n = 634 likely voters -- shows a single-digit lead, but since that digit is 7 and the margin of sampling error at 95% confidence is 3.9 points, the pollster seems justified in calling it a "solid lead."

Similarly, it must be pretty to think that the Maryland governor's race is now among the nation's tightest. It would also be remarkably stupid, considering that six of 10 surveys in October found the governor's race in Florida to be actually even. The one in Wisconsin also appears to be close, and I'd certainly prefer that the one in Michigan was closer, but the evidence says no such thing about Maryland. The closest the Republican has been is in the Sun survey, and even there, you'll note that the difference is twice the "margin of error" -- meaning that there are no nonchance cases in which the survey shows anything but a lead for the other guy.

Again, this flavor of reporting isn't lying -- in the classic Fox sense of just making stuff up -- as much as it is fable-telling. You can't blame Fox for noticing that American political commentators are rarely held to account for spouting the sort of nonsense that plays on Sunday talk shows. But as a pattern, it suggests that Fox isn't just inept at news; it's equally inept at propaganda, which is its main mission. That should, at some point, be unsettling to the paymasters.

And -- really, "two pees in a pod"? At the risk of sounding like the retired English teacher delivering another handwritten complaint to the local newspaper, have you guys thought about having someone read the stuff before you publish it? 

* Pro tip: This trick works a lot better if you start working on a story at midweek -- “I’ve always said this is a winnable,” Gillespie told on Thursday" -- but wait until the day of publication to call the bad guy: "The Warner campaign could not be reached Saturday for comment."

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