Media

The Meaninglessness of "Scoring Political Points"

Where the magic happens. (Flickr/Josh Berglund)
On Friday, President Obama gave a press conference, and in one of his answers to questions he said that "the private sector is doing fine." You may have heard about this. When I got my Washington Post on Saturday morning, I found that the editors of the capital's most important newspaper had judged this comment to be so momentous that it required not one but two separate articles devoted to it. This morning, determining that this subject required much, much more investigation, the paper had a column by Chris Cillizza explaning why this comment is so very important. Plenty of things Cillizza said are perfectly valid as far as they go, though it would have been better if he had mentioned that "gaffes" like this can't become important unless he and his colleagues decide that they're important. There are a couple of lines in his column that deserve particular notice, since they really hold the key to understanding the absurd focus on "gaffes" like this one: Then there is the reality that...

Sally Quinn Laments The End Of (Her) Power

In the Washington Post Magazine this weekend, Sally Quinn—wife of former legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, former religion columnist and social lioness—wrote a jaw-dropping piece about How Washington Has Changed For The Worse . As a friend said, "Every time you think this column can't get more deranged, there's another paragraph." Here's a summary: Crude people like the Kardashians and the Gingriches are getting attention, instead of my husband and me. That's appalling. We important people used to be in charge of getting things done here in Washington. But now people like me are pointless, because Washington is all about money. Important people won't even come to my dinner parties any more. Well, f*** 'em, I'll just have friends instead. The astonishing part is that she publishes it as if we ought to sympathize. Some excerpts: Money is power. The fundraiser has replaced the Washington dinner party. Washington has become a community of small groups of people, mostly staying...

Joe Scarborough and the Hostile Media Effect

The New York Times, showing blatant pro-Romney bias.
I have a soft spot for Joe Scarborough. Back when I was more of a partisan warrior I used to go on a lot of conservative radio and television shows, including "Scarborough Country," and he was without question the most fair-minded of the hosts I dealt with. There were even a couple of times when he admitted he had been wrong about something, which is pretty rare. But I'm going to have to object to some of his recent remarks, in particular because they offer a vivid demonstration of what communication scholars call the Hostile Media Effect. Here's the quick version of what happened: The New York Times published a story in their Home section about Mitt Romney's house in La Jolla (the one with the car elevator) and how the neighbors are reacting to having the Romneys in the neighborhood. There are some not-particularly-friendly comments from some of Mitt's Democratic neighbors, and some details that are complimentary (Mitt was recently seen touching up the paint on the fence, just like a...

Working the Refs Continues to Work

Egad.
For the last 40 years or so, conservatives have undertaken a carefully planned and sustained campaign to "work the refs," complaining constantly about "liberal media bias" in an attempt to bully reporters and obtain more favorable coverage for their side. That isn't to say they don't sincerely believe that the establishment media is biased against them—they do—but they also understand that the complaints, no matter how silly they are in a particular instance, keep pressure on reporters and have them constantly bending over backwards to show that they're not biased. And when it works really well, you get stories like this one from POLITICO honchos Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. "To GOP, blatant bias in vetting," reads the headline. Apparently, Republicans are angry that Mitt Romney's life is being investigated by reporters, while Barack Obama, who has been president for almost four years and went through all this in 2008 , isn't getting precisely the same scrutiny in precisely the same...

The Big Easy's Hometown Paper

(Flickr/Earthhopper)
As of this fall, I'll be living in the largest American city without a daily paper. The Newhouse-owned New Orleans Times-Picayune 's announcement on Thursday that the print edition will be downsized to three days per week—Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays—was a surrender to the digital age even the staff didn't see coming, not to mention a bellwether moment for the newspaper biz nationwide. No doubt, we won't be the last. It did feel like a kick in the chops to be singled out, though. I mean, jeez: Katrina, the BP oil spill, Bountygate and now this. From Mother Nature to corporate America to the goddam NFL to corporate America coming back for seconds, do we really have to be everybody's plaything? We already know we're special, believe me. Don't need the rest of you piling on. Mind you, my wife and I are post-Katrina newbies who didn't move here until 2010. But it didn't take us long to start saying "we," because that's what New Orleans does to people. And after a lifetime of the...

Math is Hard v. I Wanna Be an Engineer!

We've all been hearing that the U.S. future depends on developing more technological talent, so we can keep up with China, et al . And since half the country's potential talent pool is female, that means making sure girls don't end up as innumerate as I am. Both my parents were math majors. My mother took on math with a fury when she was told, in first grade, that girls weren't good at it: She loved it with a passion and was determined to beat every boy at it, which she did, until she met my dad, whom she therefore married. And so she laments the fact that her two daughters absolutely, mulishly refused to study math beyond junior high. God knows they tried to make us, but we balked. We were idiots. Were we held back, unlike our mother, by " stereotype threat "? You know this idea, well-established by researchers since Claude Steele introduced the concept in the 1990s. When students (or anyone, really) from a particular group are reminded about a cultural trope about their group's...

Going Meta

Tamron Hall about to bring the hammer down on Tim Carney.
Since I wrote a couple of pieces about the story of Mitt Romney possibly being a high-school bully, I've gotten some unsurprising responses. The first, perhaps predictable one, is from conservatives complaining that Barack Obama was never "vetted," and the fact that we've learned about Romney's youthful "hijinks" just shows the media's double-standard. Needless to say, this is just absurd; there were hundreds of articles written in 2008 (and since) about Obama's family and his youth, not to mention the fact that he wrote a pretty frank book about it himself before he ever ran for office. The second complaint—less silly, but related—is that this is all a distraction, and we ought to be talking about real issues. I've already said most of what I have to say about what kind of meaning we should ascribe to the bullying story, assuming it's true. But even if I disagree with the conservatives who are saying that The Washington Post should never even have pursued the story or that it shows...

The Problem of Motive Questioning

Divisive? Me?
The questioning of motives is one of the most common and most pernicious of rhetorical habits in political debate. It's pernicious because it encourages people to conclude not that your opponents are wrong about whatever matter it is we're discussing, but that they're bad people . When you question someone's motives you're automatically calling them a liar (since they will have offered an entirely different justification for why they are advocating what they're advocating), and you're also saying they're untrustworthy, cynical, and driven by some nefarious goal. We see this all the time, and I'm not saying I've never questioned anyone's motives, because from time to time I have. But we have to acknowledge that someone can take a different position from the one we do without the disagreement coming from some place of evil. To see what I'm talking about, here's today's column by Charles Krauthammer, probably the most admired columnist on the right. Appalled that President Obama is now...

The Wonder of TV Debates

Me, some years ago, sneering at a pompous ass who is sneering right back.
Whenever Paul Krugman goes on television, you can see his discomfort coming off him. Or at least that's what I see; since I've never met him in person, I don't know how much his television manner differs from his ordinary manner. But he always looks as though inside he's shaking his head, saying to himself, "This is such bullshit. I can't wait to get out of here." And it's hard to blame him. The other day, Krugman did a debate on Bloomberg TV with noted economic crank Congressman Ron Paul, and came away utterly disgusted : Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there's no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said "Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!" — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say...

Non-Partisans Finally Agree With What Partisans Have Been Saying

Flickr/K P Tripathi
The most talked-about op-ed over the weekend was "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem," a piece in The Washington Post by DC eminence grises Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. They're both not only deeply respected but known as non-partisan Congress-watchers (Ornstein even works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), which is why the piece will get more attention. But should that matter? Either they're right or they're wrong, and the fact that they are who they are ought not make any difference. And if you look at their argument, it's nothing that you couldn't have found in magazines like The Prospect and a hundred other places many times over the past two years. I feel like I've written versions of Mann and Ornstein's piece a dozen times myself (see here , or here, or here ). Mann and Ornstein's reputations do make it harder for Republicans to dismiss them as just liberal partisans, but that doesn't mean they're going to have some kind of seriously difficult...

The Person Glenn Beck Wants to Be

Remember this guy?
For a while there, Glenn Beck seemed to be the very embodiment of American conservatism circa 2009. He had his nationally syndicated radio show, his best-selling books, and his Fox News show. He was featured on magazine covers, discussed on other cable shows, and his rise was on everyone's mind . Then his fevered conspiracy theories grew kind of old, and Fox dropped him, whereupon he announced that he was going to make his own subscription-based internet television network. Chances are you haven't heard about Beck in a while, despite the fact that GBTV is making more money for Beck than he ever made at Fox. That's because the people who do things like edit magazines don't listen to Beck's radio show, and they haven't subscribed to his internet TV channel. Which means that he has lost almost all his ability to influence the broader discourse or political events. If he went on a holy war against a White House staffer the way he did against Van Jones (very successfully; Jones ended up...

The Afterlife of Gabriel Arana's Ex-Gay Life

Like thousands of you, I was absolutely gobsmacked by my editor Gabriel Arana's piece, " My So-Called Ex-Gay Life ." If it hadn't run into here first, I would have linked to it. Of course, there was the heartbreaking and finally uplifting personal story that took us through the social history of antigay "therapy." But what astonished me was the courage he had to actually report out the story, calling and talking to the key players who made "reparative therapy" intellectually respectable enough that caring parents like the Arana's would search it out and sign up their son, truly believing that they were doing the right thing. I know you've read it, so I won't belabor all that here. What I will post: Dr. Robert Spitzer's full-on public renunciation of his 2001 study. As you've read already, Gabriel Arana's reportorial call triggered Spitzer's decision to openly repudiate that work. He's now written an apology, which he's sent to the editor of Archives of Sexual Behavior that has been...

Media Bias Revealed

Frame of Romney coverage during the primaries, from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with their latest report on news coverage of the primary campaign, and the big headline is that, surprise surprise, the tone of coverage varied pretty much exactly with whether candidates were winning or losing. Does that mean reporters had a pro-Romney bias when he was winning primaries, and a pro-Santorum bias when he was winning primaries? Of course not. It shows, instead, just how ridiculous most discussion of ideological bias is. I spent many years designing and executing this kind of study, and hands down, the most difficult thing to assess in an objective, reliable way is whether coverage is "positive" or "negative" for a particular figure. There are some stories that are obviously damaging ("Candidate Caught Smoking Crack"), which can be "negative" even though they are reported in a completely neutral way. There are some stories that are obviously helpful ("Candidate Wins Primary By Large Margin"), but which are also simply...

Liberal Bias at Fox News?

Mitt Romney on Fox News.
Over at The New York Times , Nicole Hemmer has a nice piece explaining some of the history of the right's "liberal media bias" charge and how it has left them incapable of seeing anything that happens in the media—even their own media—clearly. It turns out that supporters of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (not to mention Gingrich and Santorum themselves) were shocked to find that their favorite news sources didn't validate everything they believed, including who should win the Republican primary: "this role reversal is the end product of a process that was set in motion by the conservative media. Having spent decades promoting the charge of bias, they have helped strip it of meaning. These days, bias translates roughly to 'reporting something I don't like,' a reflexive defense against stories that cut against conservative interests." Conservatives got so used to seeing bias everywhere that it reached the point where some of them began accusing Fox News of being "liberal" because it...

Live By the Comically Biased "News" Network, Die By the Comically Biased "News" Network

Won't be seeing him much there from now on.
Before he had to give up the job to run for president, Newt Gingrich was (among other things) a paid Fox News commentator. Well, it looks like he won't be getting that job back : DOVER, Del. -- During a meeting with 18 Delaware Tea Party leaders here on Wednesday, Newt Gingrich lambasted FOX News Channel, accusing the cable network of having been in the tank for Mitt Romney from the beginning of the Republican presidential fight. An employee himself of the news outlet as recently as last year, he also cited former colleagues for attacking him out of what he characterized as personal jealousy. “I think FOX has been for Romney all the way through,” Gingrich said during the private meeting -- to which RealClearPolitics was granted access -- at Wesley College. “In our experience, Callista and I both believe CNN is less biased than FOX this year. We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of FOX, and we’re more likely to get distortion out of FOX. That’s just a fact...

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