March 4, 2008
"An Attractively Against-the-Grain Enterprise..."
When editors try to provoke and newspapers dance in front of the mirror: the perils of misguided contrarianism. "If the Post is willing to smash idols like that--women's equality--it must be a pretty broad-minded place, right?"
Thursday I posted a little exercise in pattern recognition. Today I am back with the answers I received.
I spoke of three “vetting” stories that went awry at the New York Times: Obama’s youthful drug use (Feb. 9). Hillary’s marriage as Topic A among prominent Democrats (from May, 2006.) And of course McCain’s friendship with a lobbyist. (Feb. 21. I wrote about it here, and here.)
Each story left people scratching their heads: what were the editors thinking? Each was part of the “vetting” ritual in which the press imagines itself asking the hard questions of politicians who actually could be president. As Time’s Michael Scherer wrote, each is “a story that doesn’t exactly say what it is saying, or only says part of what the reporters seem to believe, or seems to be saying something it is not, or something like that.”
What is going on here? Where’s the pattern, if there is one? My plea ran at PressThink, the Huffington Post, and the Letters column at Romenesko, the news trade’s online gathering place. Brad “Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps” DeLong also ran it.
Advertisements for the paper
The best answer I got was at Romenesko’s Letters. It’s from a former newspaper journalist, Larry Kart.
The common thread here, and the main reason for the bizarreness, is that the real subject of all these stories is the Times itself, [the] image the Times thinks it’s creating or would like to create for itself when it runs an ostensibly major story about a subject that is or will become of common interest.
I agree with this. The quirks in editing have to do with self-image at the Times.
The same is true of many other broken-backed stories in the Times and a host of other papers since, probably, the mid 1970s or early 1980s. At least that’s the time when I began to see that sort of stuff in action at the paper where I used to work. A particularly revealing early warning sign was when that paper, with a long tradition of rock-ribbed Republicanism, began to seach for some attractive, young, fairly liberal candidates for local offices that it could endorse, while it never dreamed of endorsing (and hasn’t done so to this date, I believe) a non-Republican for president, governor, or senator. It slowly occurred to me that these seemingly against-the-grain local endorsements were in effect advertisements for the paper, a way of signaling to a body of potential readers that the paper very much wanted and needed to attract that the paper was an attractively against-the-grain enterprise, a place of supple independent thought rather than a stern grandfatherly GOP bastion.
…an “attractively against-the-grain enterprise.” That is so right.
…The Times is dancing in front of a mirror here, trying to move in ways that telegraph to a somewhat imaginary audience that it is a truly supple paper — iconoclastic toward its own perceived liberal image (if the “facts” of a story require that it be so) and certainly capable of seeing all sides of all issues. Thus these Times stories were mis-conceived and mis-edited so as to incorporate and express the paper’s own image-shaping needs; and the “facts,” such as they were, were pushed about one way and another toward the end. The paper is not so much a paper anymore; it is itself a candidate.
And here’s a poll showing how that candidate is doing. (High negatives.)
“To provoke, but not to offend.”
“Iconoclastic toward its own perceived liberal image” was, I think, the variety of mischief afoot at the Outlook Section of Washington Post Sunday when it published We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?, a dubious essay by a dim woman about how dumb most women really are. This was a deeply foolish act of publishing. The editor responsible, John Pomfret, told Laura Rozen that he “ran Charlotte Allen’s piece to provoke, but not to offend.” But if that were the case, he would not have chosen as provocateur a political opponent of the people who needed to be poked.
Let’s provoke people by suggesting that women really are dumb is supposed to scan iconoclastic. I mean, what other logic could it have? If the Post is willing to smash idols like that—women’s equality—it must be a pretty broad-minded place, right? This is not only a crude and formulaic way of demonstrating independence of mind; it misreads the cultural politics of the thing.
Thus, Glenn Reynolds demurred, Ed Morrissey fled in disbelief, Jessica Valenti and Jezebel seethed on behalf of millions who might, Jay Newton-Small of Time found the editors judgment “unbelievable,” Jane Hamsher gave a shout out to Posties: “clue me in to what happened here,” and the Post ombudsman started scribbling notes with an angry look on her face. (Rachel Sklar has more. And Lisa Schiffren at National Review is not impressed. The Post’s ombudswoman did weigh in: thumbs down.)
John Pomfret, you misread. But what did you misread? Good provocations do not begin with an intention to provoke, but with an author who has something real to say, and an editor willing to provoke in order to see that it gets said.
Find something on everyone
“Candidates create narratives of themselves, which are almost necessarily not wholly accurate portrayals of themselves, ” writes Christopher Colaninno at Brad Delong’s blog. “I think the media gets tripped up when they can establish that candidates narratives are not accurate in someway.”
Because what could be bad about that, right? “They’re committed to the process of anti-veneration and creating an alternative narrative for these political figures, but they don’t actually have the goods. So they write these half-baked stories, not realizing that they’re narrative is a lot easier balloon to pop then what any of the candidates have put out there.”
Anti-veneration is not a guarantor of truth but an invitation to truthiness.
At the Huffington Post, tdbach: “I think the Times has undertaken this project, if you will, to demonstrate their fair-and-balanced bonafides… rather than really dig deep and unearth God knows what, where one candidate may end up with a much bigger scandal to deal with than other candidates will (and thus appear to be out to get him or her) they float a vaguely suspicious story on each, and each story is comparably weightless but apparently critical…. You’re the journalism professional, not me. Does that make sense?”
The pressure to “find something” on everyone? Yeah, makes sense. Could be a factor. Times people would say no, I’m sure. But let me show you something…
The candidates with the biggest noses
The Washington Post has this nifty “truth watch” feature called The Fact Checker. It’s Michael Dobbs putting questionable campaign claims to the test. The Post is bold: it has a scale for falsehood-peddling: one to four Pinocchios. (Two for “significant omissions and/or exaggerations.”) If you want a press that calls bullsh*t on claims that are bullsh*t, then you have to like the Pinocchios, and the fact that a Post journalist stands behind them: reporter Michael Dobbs. Way to go Post!
Now try to find at The Fact Checker a chart, tab, feature or widget listing who’s ahead in total Pinnocchios. This would tell us which campaigns the Post has thought to penalize for being loosest with the facts. I couldn’t find such a running total anywhere. Can you?
If you’ve got the information, but you’re not displaying it that way—the candidate with the biggest nose—some of your more attentive readers might think you don’t want to advertise any imbalanced results, even when they emerge from a fair-minded procedure. There’s a politics to that decision that remains undisclosed. (See Andrew Cline on it.)
Howard Kurtz is concerned about hostillity to Hillary in the press. Let me ask him: Has the Post’s Pinnochio test shown her with a bigger nose than Obama in the aggregate this year? Or is he ahead in bad truth claims? Do you know why I can’t find out from the Fact Checker home page, but I can read about the top ten fibs of the year, which is more entertaining but lesss important? Please advise.
Newsroom cuts are responsible
In Long Winter for the Media, Jim Hoagland, columnist for the same Post, tries to explain what happened with the McCain story, which he called a “seriously undersourced account.”
What effect did a string of well-publicized, morale-damaging crises in the newsroom, as well as the industry’s darkening economic skies, have on the decision to print before the story was ready?
Good editors protect their staffs as fiercely as they prod and push them. Awarding prime front-page display to stories with heavy investments of sweat and resources is an important tool in lifting morale. The decision might have looked less urgent in a more confident, more settled newsroom.
Here’s what he’s saying: Used to be that lots of good reporting never made it into the (expensive!) newspaper, and editors kept everyone in line that way. Now in a new economy there is pressure on the editors to run the story if a lot of (expensive!) staff time has already been invested. It’s morale-sapping, as well as a sign of an investment gone bad, to have to conclude: sorry, people, we just haven’t got it. Maybe that explains how an under-sourced story got through.
I did like Matt Welch’s exasperated reply to Hoagland: “How ‘bout just doing a better job next time?”
Absence of a finding
Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings over at Delong’s joint: “I actually liked the Obama drug use piece, except for the ‘did he exaggerate?’ bits, which were silly. But the actual information the reporter came up with was quite interesting. I think they should have had the guts to just report it straight — it’s interesting the way scientific studies that fail to find an effect can be, and I suspect people have the same kind of reluctance to just report the absence of a finding straight.”
Could be. “We checked into his drug use and didn’t find much…” does not reflect back to Times-people their ideological suppleness or intent to vet. “Maybe he exaggerated” does. Or what Hoagland said: There’s a kind of silent economic pressure to run the story whether you found anything or not.
A few other reactions:
- Marilyn Ferdinand “This “vetting” may seem to reveal skeletons in the closet, but what what it really seems to reveal to me is that the NYT editors are Freudians looking for keys to character.”
- Weldon Berger: “I don’t think there’s an institutional link between the three stories other than that the people who run the paper live in an alternate reality from most people.”
- Benjamin Melançon: “All three ‘tough-on-the-candidates’ pieces, driven by the New York Times’ own choices and research rather than breaking events, have in common a great lack. Each goes out of its way to turn something arguably tangential to being president into a character issue.”
“It’s not hard to recover from a mistake,” writes Laura Rozen today, reacting to this post. “It takes just a small dose of humility and sense of accountability and frankly good business sense.” Well, yes. But when the mistake involves the peculiar style of misguided contrarianism I’ve talked about here, fixing it becomes a complicated dance with the newsroom’s self-image as a fighter for truth beyond faction.
UPDATE, March 5. Laura Rozen today is angry about something new: The Post is sending Charlotte Allen out to face the music, rather than one of the editors responsible for publishing the piece. Check out the intro to her online chat at washingtonpost.com…
On Sunday, The Washington Post’s Outlook section published a piece by Charlotte Allen under the headline “We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” Responses, most of them angry, flooded in — hundreds of letters to the editor, more than 1,000 comments on the article on washingtonpost.com and more than 10,000 related blog posts.
Wednesday, March 5 at 2 p.m. ET, Allen will come online for a special chat to answer readers’ questions about her article and the public’s reactions and rebuttals to it.
The thing drew ten thousand blog posts? Wowzer. (And someone check that math.)
This Allen chat is a deeply confused act. What are the chances that Allen is not going to start defending her arguments as real arguments, her evidence as real evidence? Very slim. And that will undermine the editor’s explanation: this was tongue in cheek, we were just having a little fun with you guys, sorry if we offended…. Besides, where has all the criticism focused? On the Post’s decision to publish the piece. The writer cannot be faulted for that.
Not a good sign if you are a fan of the Post. More bad news: the Daily Howler’s critique of Sunday’s Outlook section, which is dead on.
Well, the first question kinda proves my point. Allen isn’t high on the official story.
Washington: When I read this, I immediately thought it was written ironically. Were you surprised that so many people took it literally?
Charlotte Allen: I wouldn’t quite use the word “ironic,” but yes, I meant to be funny but with a serious point—that women want to be taken seriously but quite often don’t act serious. Also, that women and men really are different.
In other words, it wasn’t a parody in the Stephen Colbert style. Elsewhere she says, “I’m not sure whether I’d characterize the piece as satire….”
I’m sure of it: this wasn’t satire! Let’s review:
What John Pomfret told us: Allen’s piece might look like its saying, “take me seriously as social commentary,” but really it’s supposed to be funny. Tongue in cheek. (Therefore the reactions are rather… misplaced or at very least pitched the wrong way.) What Allen herself told us: it’s supposed to be funny, sure, but I’m making a serious point! You know, social commentary! (Which means the reactions are on point. Well bowled, as it were.)
What a “well placed, top tier, MSM journalist” who wrote to Laura Rozen says: “her denial that the piece was satirical makes Pomfret a liar.”
What Slate’s XX Factor says: “She started off the chat by poking a huge hole in Outlook editor John Pomfret’s rushed insistence that the piece was satire.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 4, 2008 1:11 AM
The dim-women story began with the phenomenon of women fainting--it is said--at Obama rallies. There are reports of the same thing happening at concerts by The King and The Chairman of The Board. If it were not for the latter two, this would be a completely different issue; a medical issue, possibly.
Instead, it seems more an issue of hyperexcitement at an entertainment event. Which says what about some women's view of Obama?
Men don't faint at concerts.
The IQ tail issue is empirically correct, and, although relevant for Larry Summers' argument, not so here, AFAICT.
My question is who would be turning themselves inside out if the story were equally dismissive of men, written either by a man or woman.
The problem here is not what was said, but that it is not supposed to be said about women. A taboo was broken. Whether it is true or not, it is not supposed to be said. It can be said of men, white men, straight men, businessmen, fraternity men, southern men. But not women.
IMO, it's not the facts, factoids, or exaggerations which are the point. The gasp-making is that the taboo was broken.
And the response says a good deal.
More detailed notes about the WAIS-R
“Intelligence is multifaceted as well as multidetermined…What it always calls for is not a particular ability but an overall competency or global capacity” (1981, p. 8). So speaks David Wechsler writing in 1981. The WAIS-R is an individual test of intelligence, was a revision of the original Wechsler-Bellvue Scale created in 1939 and updated in 1955. This revision has subsequently been updated in 1997 but I’ll talk about this one as it’s the one referred to in tutes this week and is very similar to the 1997 revision.
So reliable, it has been updated 3 times.
So what are some of the psychometric properties of the test? Well firstly a large standardization sample was used of 1880 Americans. This sample was 50% male and 50% female. The individuals who formed the standardization sample were aged from 16 years 0 months to 74 years 11 months. The standardization sample was highly representative of the US population in terms of age, sex, race, geographic region, occupation, education and urban-rural residence. The individuals in the standardization sample were tested between Nay 1975 and May 1980 at 115 testing centres across the U.S.
The scaled scores were based on a reference group of 500 subjects in the standardization sample aged between 20 and 34. Although scaled scores for each of the 11 subtests are obtained using a single table based on the reference group, IQs are derived separately for each of the age groups (there are nine e.g. 16-17, 18-19, 20-24, 25-34….70-74).
The test can be used for people aged 16 and up. It has found to be appropriate for use with those over 74.
So the WAIS has a good standardization sample and it is also considered to be reliable and valid.
The reliability coefficients: (internal consistency) are .93 for the Performance IQ averaged across all age groups and .97 for the Verbal IQ, with an r of .97 for the full scale. Reliability for the 11 substests is not as strong.
Very precise measures of reliability. If you take the test over and over, you will score the same each time.
Split half reliability: .95+ (very strong)
Evidence supports the validity of test as a measure of global intelligence. It does seem to measure what it intends to measure. It is correlated highly with other IQ tests (e.g. The Stanford-Binet), it correlates highly with empirical judgements of intelligence; it is significantly correlated with a number of criteria of academic and life success, including college grades, measures of work performance and occupational level. There are also significant correlations with measures of institutional progress among the mentally retarded.
Where are the precise measurements of validity? Hmmm, got a problem here. Well, we all know what constitutes success, so who cares.
One concern we discussed in some of my tutorials was with reference to the comprehension subscale on the Verbal Scale. Was a question such as “What is the thing to do if you find an envelope in the street that is sealed and addressed and has a new stamp?” a valid measure of intelligence. The only fully correct response to that question (i.e. score of 2 is if you mail it or return it the post-office or a postman. You get one point if you recognise it belongs to someone else and try to give it to say a policeman and you get 0 points if you suggest opening it, which frankly is not morally correct in our society but may be a clever thing to do especially if you see some cash in it! So it’s a culturally and morally loaded question.
Hmmm, you mean questions don't always have one perfect answer?
Most of the factual assertions in the dim-women article can be empiracally addressed, one way or another.
The characterization of various groups--excluding white men--has an odd requirement. You can--and I recall this from physical anthro forty-plus years ago--discuss various physical issues which conduce to superiority.
For example, the structure of the calf muscle, including the proportion of quick-twitch muscle fibers, in Bantu Africans, which excludes many East Africans, helps in explosive speed.
So far, so good. Because that's good.
But the reduced subcutaneous fat, denser bone structure and smaller lungs cause a higher specific gravity and make learning to swim difficult. Which may not be said, even if you've spent time trying to teach swimming to African Americans. Because that's not good.
It can be said that slightly more women show up at average IQ than men, because that's good, but not that slightly fewer show up at the high tail, because that's bad, but you can point out that fewer show up at the low tail because that's good.
And since you can't talk about the higher end, that means fewer physics profs at top tier unis is a matter of discrimination. That being all that's left.
All very simple.
Anyway, the problem with this dim-women article is that taboos were broken. These things must not be said. No public editor would be staying up nights trying to deal with a similar screed directed toward men. Because that's not taboo.
Ralph. If I understand you, the problem with the dim-dame article is that it is crap and shouldn't, therefore, have run.
That's true, but ignores the crap that runs every day. Being crap doesn't seem to mean much.
My interest is in the reaction.
Some crap is more equal than other crap and this crap is definitely not allowed. I reiterate; it broke the taboo, crap or not. I am interested, however, in the author's apparent belief that it was okay. Was she entirely wrong, or just premature?
I'm not sure about the accident point you make. Men are more likely to drive in bad weather, a phenomenon unknown to many in the nation. My father, visiting my sister in Houston, remarked that nobody says, "We'll be there tomorrow if that storm they're forecasting swings south." Whereas in Michigan and many other states, for several months a year, travel plans are "flexible".
Spent two hours on the side of the expressway Friday with a lady I pulled out of a pickup truck on its side, waiting for help. The towtruck driver said he'd been working fourteen hours straight. I could see others in distress in my mirrors.
So if the weather is bad, guys are more likely to drive--I'd rather my wife not get the sour belly trying to interpret the pavement's coefficient of friction--and more likely not to stay home.
Experience is good but becomes a diminishing benefit. After a certain level, experience maxes out its utility while exposure continues to accumulate. We see that in insuring pilots.
Re: "Dean Esmay seems to making the same mistake I attributed to the WaPo editors, and that Richard Aubrey seems to be making from the other side: the problem isn't just that this article was taboo-breaking, it's that it was crap."
It's Esmay's site, but the post was by Trudy Schuett. And you are right, Ralph. That is why writers at National Review and Hot Air objected, saying, in effect: I'm all for countering liberal group think, but this is crap....
About "the mistake [Aubrey] seems to be making from the other side," part... I do wish people would understand that in talking to an internet troll you never get anything back but trollish behavior upon a new set of words. There is no discourse there, there are no "sides," there is no opinion. It's not commentary, it's not argument, it's not even ego inflected fighting. Troll logic is simple, elemental: I dispute, therefore I exist. I exist, I exist, I exist. See? Some sap just responded to me. I exist, I exist, I exist.
If you actually reply to one of the disputations, you are the troll's dupe. Trolls are power freaks in that sense. They can't get over that they have the power to annoy, and trick people into reacting. Most of all, they hate you for falling for their tricks. Point our a "flaw" in a point a troll made, and, laughing at you, they just shift the ground ("oh, I know the article is crap, my point was...") and then present a new flaw so they can hate you again for responding to that one. Want a blast of pixelated hatred? Answer a troll.
The phrase "troll" comes from "trolling for newbies," meaning people who haven't seen the pattern yet and so they fall for it.
Don't fall for it.
This is how a writer who thinks the reactions are a bit much does it when he's not being a troll but just, you know... a human being. From the American Scene...
Now, I wouldn’t have chosen to run Sunday’s Charlotte Allen piece on how women are dumb in the Post or any other publication, but I do think the near universal outrage over the piece is a bit much. The piece was clearly intended to be a light hearted send-up of dumb, offensive views about female behavior rather than an actual dumb, offensive piece. In theory, it should’ve worked in the same way as when incredibly brilliant, driven, and successful women with some sort of conservative pedigree dryly say things like, “Of course I support the patriarchy. This country was fine till women got the right to vote.” (Just trust me when I say this happens.) It’s obviously ludicrous and self-negating, and somewhat amusingly allows for some playful jabbing at the stereotype of conservative women. It’s not epic humor, but it works in conversation as a quick aside. The problem is, Allen’s piece is neither particularly funny nor particularly clever and doesn’t do a very good job of indicating that it’s basically satirical. Satire can be a tough thing to pull off, no doubt, but the Post’s editors should at least be smart enough to know they don’t have the ear for it and stick to running pleasantly bland columns about political affairs as usual.
Not to mention, RIchard, how this comparative hyperprotectionism towards women itself retards women's progress.
The silver lining for men within the comparative amount of negative sexist characterizations directed against them is how it helps to mature them and teach them to behave like autonomous adults. The problem, of course, is that the sexism against men is being taken much too far -- as demonstrated in objective reality by the comparative suicide rates by gender (4.5 male to 1 female) and lifespan (6 to 7 years shorter for males than females), among other benchmarks.
Far too many North american women, in comparison, live in hyperprotected social bubbles where even the slightest criticism of their behavior, let alone their character, is utterly forbidden. And the sad sorry stupid consequence of this is how it keeps them comparatively weaker and less competitive with their male peers. Too many North american women live in a comparative endless adolescence of spoiled bratdom, and are much the worse for it.
One can even observe this process repeatedly throughout the course of these comments, Charlotte's chat transcript, and the blogospheric and monosource media reactions that Jay cites.
So Charlotte's critically wrong about one thing: it's not that women are comparatively 'dim'; it's how their behavior is comparatively juvenile.
Ferdy's blatant refusal to take responsibility for her original misrepresentations of all this serves as direct documentation -- as does Jay's blatant refusal to criticize her for it.
If you protect the little children too much, they never grow up to be autonomous adults. And that's what Charlotte is really addressing: the failure of her female peers to grow up and behave like autonomous adults in comparison to their male peers.
I'll start taking Jay Rosen seriously on matters like this when I see him taking his responsibility to criticize blatant misrepresentation seriously.
Because unless and until that happens, he's just another sexist enabler of comparative female infantilization and incompetence.