Monday, July 26, 2010

With the media we have ....

DougJ: Lie to me

Matt Yglesias writes of Breitbart and the Daily Caller:

At some point conservatives need to ask themselves about the larger meaning of this kind of conduct—and Andrew Breitbart’s—for their movement. Beyond the ethics of lying and smear one’s opponents, I would think conservatives would worry about the fact that a large portion of conservative media is dedicated to lying to conservatives. They regard their audience as marks to be misled and exploited, not as customers to be served with useful information.

I used to believe this sort of thing, that it was shameful, for example, that Fox provided such a low level of journalism to its captive conservative audience. My thinking was that conservatives watched Fox and listened to crazy conservative talk radio not because they enjoyed being lied to, but because they enjoyed overtly conservative media and Fox/Rush/etc. was what they had to choose from; the lying and low level of discourse, I reasoned, might very well be bugs rather than features.

Well, I was wrong, they’re features. Compare the ratings of Shep Smith with the ratings for Glenn Beck. Compare the traffic numbers for Hot Air, Drudge, and Instapundit with those of FrumForum, The American Scene, and Eunomia. And note that the Daily Caller traffic went way up with when they started in with the JournoList silliness (whatever one thinks of JournoList, the way that Daily Caller is presenting the story is extremely dishonest).

Given the choice, conservatives as a group will go for the dumber, more dishonest, more insane option. There’s a market for good-faith conservative media, but that market is liberals. Who watches/reads the faux-good faith propaganda of David Brooks? Totebaggers. Who reads The American Scene and Eunomia? People like me.

Conservatives, by and large, have no interest in what you or I or actual journalists consider journalism. It’s telling that when Clark Hoyt and Andy Alexander muse about pleasing conservative readers, they don’t talk about covering legitimate stories that conservative readers are interested in, they talk (exclusively) about following ginned-up Breitbart controversies.

Yglesias has it backwards: the problem isn’t that conservative media lies to conservatives, it’s that conservatives seek out media that tells lies. There is no way for media to appeal to conservatives without lowering your journalistic standards.

I give Jim VandeHei and John Harris credit for realizing this. If you want to construct an optimal amoral pageview machine, you better be willing to debase yourself.

DougJ: Nostalgia for a past that never was

Dana Milbank has a column that is getting a lot of play on the intertrons this weekend, it’s about lack of shame within corporate culture. He concludes:

Government should push back against a corporate culture that has lost its sense of shame.

I’m not sure I agree with the use of the word “lost” which implies that corporate culture once did have a sense of shame. What has changed, instead, is that the government no longer has the wherewithal to push back against corporate shamelessness. Tom Schaller had an interesting take on how the Reagan revolution never ended:

What’s remarkable is how we still hear the same, core arguments about the role and functions of government—and how the policy-specific debates over matters like offshore drilling persist as well. And yet here we are, 30 years later, and the tax burden is at its lowest since 1950, the regulatory state has been cowed if not captured by the industries it is supposed to oversee, and America stands as the world’s lone remaining superpower. The antipathy toward government Reagan popularized has, even if indirectly and merely in spirit, contributed to a governing approach that has led to everything from coal mine disasters to the BP oil spill.

It’s not just antipathy towards the government, though, it’s also reverence for corporate leaders. Establishment media now invariably celebrates captains of industry as Galtian geniuses who “create jobs”. Pulitzer prizer winners criticize reporters who dare to cross corporate leaders. Mockery of any sort is left now to Taiwanese animators and amateur bloggers.

It’s fun to wax nostalgiac about an imaginary past where corporate American had more of a sense of responsibility; it’s the same past where every teen-ager respected his elders, every American helped out his neighbors, and no one needed to lock the door. If people are tired of corporate misconduct, they need to vote for a government that will rein it in, not shed a tear for the end of the good old days.

Aravosis: Howard Dean calls FOX News 'absolutely racist' for handling of Shirley Sherrod affair


Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean took direct aim at Fox News for its involvement in the Shirley Sherrod racism flap, calling their coverage "absolutely racist."

Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, offered his candid assessment in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" in which he criticized the cable network for being complicit in the controversy.

"Fox News did something that was absolutely racist," Dean said. "They had an obligation to find out what was really in the clip. They had been pushing a theme of black racism with this phony Black Panther crap and this business and this Sotomayor and all this other stuff."

E.J. Dionne Jr. considers the smearing of Shirley Sherrod as a possible "turning point in American politics," but not for the reason that generated so much discussion last week.

For the Washington Post, the reason this is a "time for action" is the right has embraced "racial backlash politics" in the hopes of destroying President Obama, and news organizations -- treating extremist rants as "one side of the story" -- are accepting right-wing propaganda as legitimate.

Dionne laments the Obama administration's initial handling of the Sherrod matter, but noted that "the Obama team was reacting to a reality: the bludgeoning of mainstream journalism into looking timorously over its right shoulder and believing that 'balance' demands taking seriously whatever sludge the far right is pumping into the political waters."

This isn't a new phenomenon -- see 2000, presidential election of -- but it's getting worse.

There were no "death panels" in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow "the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.

The traditional media are so petrified of being called "liberal" that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors. Mainstream journalists regularly criticize themselves for not jumping fast enough or high enough when the Fox crowd demands coverage of one of their attack lines.

Thus did Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander ask this month why the paper had been slow to report on "the Justice Department's decision to scale down a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party." Never mind that this is a story about a tiny group of crackpots who stopped no one from voting. It was aimed at doing what the doctored video Breitbart posted set out to do: convince Americans that the Obama administration favors blacks over whites.

Dionne concludes that, in addition to the administration learning a lesson about overreacting to an inane media climate, "the mainstream media should stop being afraid of insisting on the difference between news and propaganda."

That's exceptionally good advice, which will almost certainly be ignored.

Levensen (Inverse Square Blog): Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Cite The Atlantic’s “Business and Economics Editor”: Further to the Megan McArdle is Always Wrong chronicles.

Update: Greetings to everyone coming here via TBogg, Susan of Texas, Eschaton and Brad DeLong — and my thanks to those good folks for the links. A special thanks, of course, to Ms. McArdle herself, who tweeted this very post, apparently authored by “some idiot.” She has forgotten, I think, that here in Boston, that’s an epithet of glorious memory. This idiot welcomes readers from wherever they come.

Though if I were just a little snarkier, I would add that being insulted by McArdle calls to my mind the experience of being attacked by the British Tory parliamentarian Sir Geoffrey Howe, as described by Roy Hattersley Denis Healey: it is like being savaged by a dead sheep.


The old joke* about Richard Nixon asked “How can you tell when he’s lying?”

The answer: ”When his lips move.”

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that something similar must be said about Megan McArdle. Perhaps lying is too harsh a word — but the serial errors that all fall on the side that supports her initial claims and that recur again and again in her work suggest to me that something other than mere intellectual sloth and sloppiness is the driver.

Ordinarily, such a record wouldn’t matter much, especially in journalism. In theory, a series of clips as riddled with error as McArdle’s would end most careers in high prestige journalism. Hot Air might still find a use for you, but The Atlantic?

But the problem is that McArdle is useful: she advances an agenda — that which comforts the comfortable — and she does so with what I think is truly her original talent, the capacity not to notice the ridicule and ferociously dismissive debunking that she so often attracts.

Being able to be wrong in a form and fashion that aids the powerful, and possessing the ability not to mind a life that must be thus lived in willing embrace of error…now that’s a trick.

But it is one that does real damage to the republic, as the post that aroused this latest bout of McArdle-bashing demonstrates. In it, McArdle seeks to discredit Elizabeth Warren as a potential leader of the new Consumer Finance Protection Agency to be set up under the just-passed financial reform bill.

To do so she tries to impugn both the quality and integrity of Warren’s scholarship, and she does so by a mix of her usual tricks — among them simple falsehoods;** highly redacted descriptions of what Warren and her (never mentioned) colleagues actually said;*** and descriptions of Warren’s work that are inflammatory — and clearly wrong, in ways she seems to hope no one will bother to check.****

You can see the footnotes for quick examples of these sins. Here, I’ll confine myself to pointing out that in this post you find McArdle doing the respectable-society version of the same approach to argument that Andy Breitbart has just showed us can have such potent effect.

To see what I mean, you have to follow through two steps: how McArdle constructs her picture of a feckless, partisan and dishonest Warren — and then how she generalizes from it.

Partly, McArdle relies on the strength of her platorm. As “Business and Economics editor of The Atlantic” she routinely writes in assertions that we are to accept on her say -so.

(As an aside — this argument from authority is never that strong, and, as McArdle demonstrated very recently, can descend to pure, if unintended, comedy (go to Aimai’s comment at the bottom of Susan of Texas’s post), its flip side is that different. Everytime someone gets something thing wrong in a consequential way, the loss of trust should advance, ratcheting up with each such error detected, to the point where it becomes the safest default position to assume that someone — McArdle, for example — is always wrong till proven otherwise.)

But back to the anatomy of McArdle’s campaign. I’m going to focus on just one example where McArdle asks us to believe that her argument is strong and supported by the literature — without quite fessing up to what her supporting material actually says. As part of her sustained campaign to deny the significance of medical bankruptcy in the US, she writes,

A pretty convincing paper argues that the single best predictor of bankruptcy is simply how much debt you’ve accumulated–not income, job loss, divorce, or what have you. People who declare bankruptcy tend to have nicer stuff than others at the same income level.

The problem here is that the paper does not actually say quite what McArdle implies it does. She’s mastered here the trick Sally Field played in Absence of Malice — she’s managed to come up with a sentence that is accurate…but not truthful.

In fact, should you actually take the trouble to read the cited study (by UC Davis finance prof, Ning Zhu) you will find material like this: ”households with medical conditions are twice more likely to file for bankruptcy (33.5 percent) than households that do not have medical conditions (14.8 percent)…;”

And this: “Having medical problems increases the households’ filing probability by 7.6 percent and one standard deviation of increase in employment tenure is associated with an increase of 9.2 percent in the filing probability. Such changes represent 48.40 and 58.60 percent deviation from the baseline probability….;”

And this “our results provide qualitative support for both the adverse event and the over-consumption/strategic filing explanations.”

To be fair Zhu concludes that overconsumption — spending too much on housing, cars and credit cards account for more of the total burden of bankruptcy than medical events, divorce or unemployment, as McArdle wrote.

But as McArdle completely failed to acknowledge, Zhu does so while using somewhat more stringent standard for counting medical expenses as a factor in bankruptcy than other scholars employed — as he explicitly acknowledges. He concedes the continuing significance of medically -induced bankruptcy. He acknowledges what he believes to be a weak underweighting of that factor (because some people pay for medical expenses on credit cards). And he notes that a number of other studies, not limited to those co-authored by Warren, come to different conclusions.

In other words: McArdle correctly describes one conclusion of this paper in a way that yields for its readers a false conclusion about what the paper itself actually says. And look what that false impression implies: if medical bankruptcy is a trivial problem, society-wide, then Warren can be shown to be both a sloppy scholar and, as McArdle more or less explicitly says, a dishonest one as well.

And that leads me back to the thought that got me going on this post. It seems to me that what we read in McArdle here is a genteel excursion into Andrew Breitbart territory. Like the Big Hollywood thug, she misleads by contraction, by the omission of necessary context, by simply making stuff up when she thinks no one will check (again, see the footnotes for examples). And like Breitbart, she does so here to achieve a more than on goal. The first is simply to damage Elizabeth Warren as an individual, to harm her career prospects. Hence ad hominem stuff like this:

Her work gets so much attention because it comes from a Harvard professor. And this isn’t Harvard caliber material–not even Harvard undergraduate.

Which neatly sets up this punch line:

..this woman is now under consideration to head a powerful new agency. If this is how she evaluates data, then isn’t that going to hamper her in making good policy?

But there is a larger goal as well. McCardle hasn’t given up, as the GOP hasn’t either, on the idea of simply undoing all that the Obama administration has managed to push past the outright lies and bad faith arguments of the right. So here she does her bit for the cause, taking every attempt to sideswipe health reform:

Obviously, this was also held out as an argument for PPACA, [the health care reform bill] making an implicit promise to the American people which I believe to be false.

So Warren is the target, and there is no doubt that McArdle is trying by any means to discredit her to the public — but the larger ambition here is to discredit major reforms undertaken by the Obama administration in a kind of guilt by association. (See, e.g. the connection some GOP leaders are making between Shirley Sherrod and the negotiated settlement in the discrimination case brought by African American farmers and the USDA.)

McArdle is much more housebroken than many of her fellow travelers of course. She knows which fork to use (or perhaps better, that particular ocean margin from which the right people secure their salt). People who would not dream of taking Breitbart seriously still quote McArdle as a seemingly respectable source.

But she’s doing the same kind of work.

Caveat Lector.

And with that, I’m done with McArdle-world for the summer. Just not worth suffering the Ceti Eel infections that result from too frequent a return to that particular planet.

On Wednesday night's episode, Rachel Maddow talked about Fox News' role in the Shirley Sherrod matter. "This is what Fox News does," she explained. "This is how they are different from other news organizations. Just like the ACORN controversy, Fox knows they have a role in this dance. That's not new; that's not actually even interesting about this scandal. Fox does what Fox does."

Bill O'Reilly responded on his Fox News program, "Which is kick your network's butt every single night, madam. And you have to be kidding me with this 'fake ACORN scandal' stuff? Unbelievable. Do you live in this country?"

Rachel responded on the air last night. If you haven't seen it, you should.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Here's the kicker: "Because when you got all 'kicked your network's butt' and 'madam' on me, you really weren't trying to tout your network's ratings. You were trying to take the attention off me saying that your network, Fox News, continually crusades on flagrantly bogus stories designed to make white Americans fear black Americans -- which Fox News most certainly does for a political purpose, even if it upends the lives of individuals like Shirley Sherrod, even as it frays the fabric of the nation, and even as it makes the American dream more of a dream and less of a promise.

"You can insult us all you want about television ratings, Mr. O'Reilly, and you'll be right that yours are bigger -- for now and maybe forever. You are the undisputed champion. But even if no one watches us at all except for my mom and my girlfriend and people who forgot to turn off the TV after Keith, you are still wrong on what really matters, and that would be the facts, your highness."

Benen: A 'SLAP IN THE FACE' -- IN 1981
Charles Krauthammer had a surprisingly interesting column a couple of weeks ago, some of which I even found vaguely persuasive (an odd feeling given its author). But one paragraph in particular got me thinking.

The net effect of 18 months of Obamaism will be to undo much of Reaganism. Both presidencies were highly ideological, grandly ambitious and often underappreciated by their own side. In his early years, Reagan was bitterly attacked from his right. (Typical Washington Post headline: "For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over" -- and that was six months into his presidency!) Obama is attacked from his left for insufficient zeal on gay rights, immigration reform, closing Guantanamo -- the list is long.

Just six months after Reagan's inauguration, was the "honeymoon" really perceived as over between him and the "new right"? A friend of mine dug up the article Krauthammer referenced, and it's almost amusing to read nearly three decades later.

It ran on July 21, 1981 (obviously, no link available), and it came in response to conservative outrage over the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For some of the most vocal leaders of the New Right movement, the nomination was the latest in a series of slights and insults they have suffered from Reagan advisers which raise questions in their minds about whether the president is really their kind of conservative.

"The White House slapped us in the face," says Richard A. Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail expert. "The White House is saying you don't have a constituency we're concerned about. We don't care about you."

The "New Right" was defined, at the time, as breaking with the Goldwater old-guard and expanding the GOP with outreach to the fledgling religious right and use of "sophisticated campaign techniques," such as direct mail.

And six months in, the leaders of this faction weren't happy. The O'Connor nomination made them livid, and conservatives grew all the more frustrated when, despite an aggressive campaign involving "letters and telegrams," the right couldn't even find Republican senators willing to come out publicly against the nominee. (O'Connor was confirmed 99 to 0.)

But the anger and frustration was more expansive than one high court nomination. "In terms of having any real influence with the Reagan administration, we just haven't had any," Howard Phillips, at the time the head of the Conservative Caucus, said. "All they've done is throw us a few bones to keep the dogs from biting their heels."

The right was angry when George H.W. Bush, perceived as a moderate, was added to the 1980 ticket. Conservatives were angrier still when James Baker became Reagan's chief of staff -- a man activists on the right considered overly pragmatic and insufficiently conservative.

And by this time 29 years ago, conservatives could hardly contain their disappointment. Leaders on the right began complaining regularly that they "won the election, but lost the White House." Paul Weyrich questioned whether the relationship between his conservative allies and the Reagan administration was "salvageable."

And all of this came before Reagan raised taxes, extended "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants, expanded the size of the federal bureaucracy, tripled the deficit, negotiated with our most hated enemy without preconditions -- and became the single most revered figure in Republican circles of the 20th century, up to and including the RNC describing him, in all seriousness, as Ronaldus Magnus.

I guess the moral of the story is that perceptions can change over time.

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