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FACT-CHECKS AND BUZZ-KILLS! The facts can undermine pleasing tales. Consider Kristof’s column: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 8, 2009

Antoinette’s return: We should have mentioned this yesterday: Returning from her holiday break, Maureen Dowd noted that she once wrote a column accusing someone else of being “frivolous!” You can check it out in paragraph 7. You see something new every year.

Obama’s promise: We were surprised when we read the front-page, lede story in today’s New York Times. In part, the headlines said this: “OBAMA PROMISES BID TO OVERHAUL RETIREE SPENDING/Potential for Risky Fight Over Social Security and Medicare.”

Wow! Obama had “promised” to “overhaul” Social Security! And Medicare! Knowing he had a major story, Jeff Zeleny laid it right on the line in his opening paragraphs:

ZELENY (1/8/09): President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that overhauling Social Security and Medicare would be ''a central part'' of his administration's efforts to contain federal spending, signaling for the first time that he would wade into the thorny politics of entitlement programs.

As the Congressional Budget Office projected a record $1.2 trillion budget deficit for this year even before the costs of the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package being taken up by the House and the Senate, Mr. Obama stepped up his effort to reassure lawmakers and the financial markets that he plans a vigorous effort to keep the government’s finances from deteriorating further.

Speaking at a news conference in Washington, he provided no details of his approach to rein in Social Security and Medicare, which are projected to consume a growing share of government spending as the baby boom generation ages into retirement over the next two decades. But he said he would have more to say about the issue when he unveiled a budget next month.

Should he follow through with a serious effort to cut back the rates of growth of the two programs, he would be opening up a potentially risky battle that neither party has shown much stomach for. The programs have proved almost sacrosanct in political terms, even as they threaten to grow so large as to be unsustainable in the long run. President Bush failed in his effort to overhaul Social Security, and Medicare only grew larger during his administration with the addition of prescription drug coverage for retirees.

You’re right: The word “promise” doesn’t appear in that text. Nor had Obama provided “details of his approach to rein in Social Security and Medicare” during his news conference. But he’s headed for “a risky battle,” Zeleny warned—if he actually “follows through with a serious effort,” of course.

At the Times, this was the day’s biggest story; the report appeared at the top of page one, all the way on the right. And we were surprised when we saw the report, because we’d already read the Washington Post—and we didn’t recall reading a word about Obama’s promise there. At the Times, Obama’s “promise” was the day’s biggest news. At the Post, had it even occurred?

So how about it: Did Obama make a promise to overhaul Social Security? After reading Zeleny’s full report, we still weren’t entirely sure. You see, we read all the way to the end of his piece, and we didn’t find a single quotation of anything Obama had actually said about this matter! Three lonely words (“a central part”) were quoted in that opening paragraph. But that turned out to be the only quotation about this promise provided in the report!

Obama “provided no details” about his approach? Judging from this front-page report, he also provided no words!

Today, Times readers know that their incoming president has “promised” to “overhaul” Social Security—and they know this is the day’s biggest story. Meanwhile, readers of the Washington Post have barely heard a word about it! We thought again of the famous old joke, the one that’s known as Goldberg’s Law: “The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches isn’t sure.”

Upon rereading the Post: In paragraph 9 of a page-two report, Lori Montgomery provided a slightly longer quotation from Obama’s news conference—though she showed no sign of thinking he’d made some sort of newsworthy promise. To read your new president’s actual “promise,” you know what to do: Just click here.)

Special report: Tell me a story!

PART 3—FACT-CHECKS AND BUZZ-KILLS: A long-time reader e-mailed us about that hapless farm-state pol, the sock-less fellow who inspired Tom Brokaw’s daft, feckless story (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/7/09). “Does that mean the anonymous candidate adopted the Nantucket custom of not wearing socks in his home state?” our e-mailer wondered. “Or did he just not wear socks at all?” Then, our mailer puzzled further, thinking about Dear Jack:

E-MAIL: Oddly, you rarely heard JFK’s character assessed by his pre-Jackie dress, which was described charitably as “careless” and could include mismatched socks. Also, representing a state that had a major hat industry in his time, Kennedy almost never wore a hat. There are photos from the early Mass. campaigns showing him carrying a hat, but few show him wearing one. Still, few people ever thought Kennedy was clueless about Massachusetts—or other things.

Oddly? No. And a cynic would say that these silly stories have little to do with anything anyone “thinks.” Incomparably, we replied to our reader, explaining the use that is actually made of those “small, telling details:”

REPLY: Oddly? No. These “small details” are carefully picked (or invented) to punish those pols the gang doesn't like, and to help those pols who are favored. Kennedy was (and remains) a god among NBC’s crew.

I would assume the story means that the pol "went native" each summer on Nantucket, thereby showing that he "doesn't even know who he is." But these stories don’t have to make any real sense. They just have to convey the Group Judgment.

Did it make any sense when pundits screamed about the three buttons on Gore’s troubling suits? (On cable, Arianna even imagined that she’d spotted four buttons—that “it’s just not the way most American males dress.”) Obviously, no: This Brief Group Obsession made no earthly sense—except as a transparent way to trash a pol whom the Village Press Corps now despised.

In short, these were deeply dishonest people. They pretended to draw meaning from “small, telling details;” in the process, they changed the shape of your world. And even today, Brokaw’s prepared to insult your intelligence, again affirming such sheer-nonsense tales. But so it goes inside our celebrity “press corps,” a cohort devoted to various types of inane, simple tales. Some facts are simply “too good to check”—and some pleasing stories are too good to drop.

Tomorrow, we’ll return to a familiar type of feel-good story—a familiar type of heartwarming tale in which favored people hatch miracle cures. But today, let’s ponder the role played by fact-checking, using a column by Nicholas Kristof which appeared just before Christmas break.

As always, Kristof had noble intentions—intentions he was willing to state. Identifying himself as a liberal, he was determined to urge his fellow liberals to be more generous to the unfortunate. (“[Y]ou’ve guessed it!” he wrote near the end. “This column is a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable.”) In the process, he penned a pleasing story—a story drawn straight from a pseudocon wet dream. Conservatives are more generous than liberals, the disappointed liberal admitted. Under the headline “Bleeding Heart Tightwads,” he started by saying how unhappy he was with his “findings:”

KRISTOF (12/20/08): This holiday season is a time to examine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, but I’m unhappy with my findings. The problem is this: We liberals are personally stingy.

Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.

Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.

Other research has reached similar conclusions. The “generosity index” from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.

The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans—the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.

Was it just our imagination? Or had Kristof put himself in a familiar place—a place where he was morally superior to liberals and conservatives both?

Indeed, this piece struck us as such Vintage Kristof that we decided to fact-check his claims. We’re accustomed to columns like this from the scribe—columns in which he self-identifies as a liberal, while typing up claims which seem to come straight from pseudo-conservative spin tanks. But was his basic claim actually true? Are liberals “stingy”—are they “tightwads” and “cheapskates?” Are conservatives really more generous? We had, and still have, no earthly idea—and as we fact-checked, we couldn’t help wondering if Kristof knows the answer himself.

Kristof had a wonderful story—a man-bites-dog tale, a tale which would endear him to those on the right. But was his story actually accurate? The facts about this matter seem quite murky—and Kristof’s sources seem less than reliable.

First: Arthur C. Brooks, Kristof’s principal source, isn’t just any old author of books. He’s currently president of the American Enterprise Institute—the type of conservative “think tank” which does some perfectly decent work, but also churns all manner of dreck in our sad “culture wars.” Why didn’t Kristof note this connection? If you know, please tell us.

Beyond that, what “study by Google” did Kristof mean? We’ll be honest—we didn’t even know that Google does studies. But even after trying to fact-check, we don’t know what Google study he meant. Even on-line, Kristof didn’t link to this study, or to any other source. Other Times columnists link with abandon. Kristof left us cold—in the dark.

Of course, it doesn’t matter who makes a claim, as long as the claim is accurate. But is it true, what Arthur Brooks said? Do households headed by conservatives really give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals? We’ll only say this: After spending a chunk of time looking through some critiques of Brooks’ claims, we’d have to say we simply don’t know—and we’d be surprised if Kristof can really defend his assertions. We’ll link to a few critiques below—but there are some conceptual problems involved in these matters, and the data don’t seem to be hugely dependable. We’ll also link you to a critique of that “generosity index” by the Catalog for Philanthropy. Their cited claim seems a bit shaky too. But it helped make a pleasing story.

Bottom line: Do conservatives give more than liberals? We don’t know, and we doubt that Kristof knows either. And yes, you typically do feel punked, when the primary source of a column like this turns out to be the (unidentified) head of a major conservative outfit. We found this column very annoying—in part because its claims seem so murky, in part because invidious claims of this type play such an unhelpful role in promoting our inane culture wars. As you’ll recall, we offered a similar complaint when John Dean wrote a poorly-argued book—a book which pleasingly said that conservatives are the big, very bad group.

Such sweeping claims should be argued with care—but scribes will often prefer a good story. Kristof’s claims are pleasing from certain perspectives—they may have helped Arthur Brooks get his job—but his fact-checking seemed rather weak. But then, fact-checking just ain’t a strong suit among many modern upper-end scribes. Often, the facts will undermine simple tales—and many journalists favor such stories over the buzz-kill provided by facts. How poorly do journalists work with facts—the kinds of facts that can kill pleasing tales? Tomorrow, we’ll return to that bogus Holocaust tale—and to similar tales from the classroom.

In case you want to waste your time too: How solid are the claims in Brooks’ book? It seemed to us, after doing some checking, that it would be quite hard to figure that out. One critique was offered at The Volokh Conspiracy, by Professor Jim Lindgren, not by Eugene Volokh himself. (Lindgren: “Although the liberal v. conservative split is the hook for the book, the data are not nearly as stark as the hype surrounding the book might indicate.” Just click here.) At the Boston Globe, Christopher Shea also wrote a critique which raised doubts about Brooks’ claims. “Brooks's book should keep scholars busy for quite a while, given its wealth of empirical claims,” Shea wrote. That said, we couldn’t find a lot of critiques of Brooks’ claims, one way or another. Our guess: It would be very hard to evaluate his work.

In 2004, the Globe had also published a critique of that “generosity index” by the Catalog for Philanthropy. Matt Kelly reached this conclusion:

KELLY (12/19/04): To be fair, one of the first people to admit the shortcomings of the Generosity Index is the creator of the index himself: George McCully, president of the Catalog for Philanthropy. He insists he only wanted to create a tool that drew attention to patterns of charitable donations and, ideally, prodded people to give more.

McCully calls his Generosity Index "crude but telling." He's right about the crude part, although the "telling" remains to be seen. With data so slippery and definitions of "generosity" so elusive, it's hard to say how stingy, cheap, or average Massachusetts truly is.

McCully had good intentions in creating that index. So did Kristof in writing his column—by his own admission.