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Daily Howler: David Broder can't describe the latest non-excellent project
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WHEN BRODER MET EXCELLENCE! David Broder can’t describe the latest non-excellent project: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 2, 2008

SEKOFF V. COCCO: Some of the mossbacks want you to know that the gender-trashing, for them, is a matter of “choice.” One such crawler is creepy Roy Sekoff, Arianna’s unseemly boy toy.

Last Thursday night, Sekoff appeared on MSNBC’s Verdict with Dan Abrams. Discussions of pundit misogyny/sexism had been in the air for weeks. And Sekoff wanted to vote with his mouth, which gave us a window to his soul. But then, to judge from the transcript–we didn’t see the program–Jonathan Alter didn’t exactly bathe himself with glory here either.

We don’t know what has happened to Alter. But Sekoff was making things clear:

ABRAMS (5/29/08): Roy, does tonight’s news, do you think, change things?

SEKOFF: No. Hillary–it’s going to be over by next week and Hillary will just be there in the wings, kind of like a Miss America runner-up waiting for the nude pictures to come out, you know.

ALTER: Which happens.

ABRAMS: Roy is going to be a poster–

SEKOFF: Don’t forget, RFK was assassinated in June but Vanessa Williams’ pictures didn’t come out until July.

ABRAMS: Roy just guaranteed himself a picture on the sexism Web sites with that comparison. Welcome, Roy.

SEKOFF: It’s a metaphor, Dan.

ALTER: Come in. The water’s warm.

ABRAMS: Craig Crawford, Roy Sekoff, Jonathan Alter, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

“It’s a metaphor!” People like this are cosmically stupid–and they’re pleased, proud and happy to show it! By the way: As far as we can tell, Sekoff hasn’t received his predicted spot in the sexism hall of fame. As far as we can tell from Google, no one has commented yet.

At any rate: After weeks of this discussion, Sekoff wanted to get on the record. But then, fellows like Sekoff have always been with us, including inside all “progressive” movements. Their tiny minds will never adjust. They have no plan to drop their gender-trashing. They will always persist in this conduct.

This brings us back to Marie Cocco’s absence from last Sunday’s Meet the Press.

As we noted on Friday, Cocco e-mailed to let us know: No, she wasn’t invited to be part of the six-person panel on the May 25 Meet the Press (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/30/08). All six members of Russert’s panel rolled their eyes at Clinton’s claim that the media has engaged in sexism and misogyny. No one–not even one out of six–was willing to advance Clinton’s view. That would, of course, be one of out seven, counting the familiar faking from the program’s chubby-cheeked host.

Only later did we realize why Cocco (or someone sharing her view) couldn’t have been invited. Consider what the lady did that same day on Reliable Sources.

Uh-oh! Howard Kurtz had assembled a panel to discuss this same infernal charge. But Kurtz was a good deal more honest than Russert. He opened the segment with tape of five major broadcasters gender-trashing the loathsome Clinton. And things went straight downhill from there! Indeed, when Cocco answered Kurtz’s first question, it became abundantly clear why Russert could never have booked her:

KURTZ (5/25/08): Joining us now to talk about this, in Baltimore, Carol Costello, who reports for The Situation Room on CNN. And here in Washington, radio talk show host Blanquita Cullum and Marie Cocco, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.

Marie Cocco, what are some of the swipes and slams against Hillary that have bothered you most in the coverage of this campaign? Have we enabled this? Have we allowed this?

COCCO: Sure. You know, sometimes you put on cable television and you feel like you're in the middle of a locker room.

One of the most memorable lines was last fall, actually, when Tucker Carlson, on MSNBC, was calling Senator Clinton scary and said, you know, "Every time she comes on TV, I instinctively cross my legs." Chris Matthews has said that the male politicians, prominent male politicians, governors, senators who were endorsing Senator Clinton last fall were "castratos in the eunuch chorus."

KURTZ: All right.

Uh-oh! Kurtz asked Cocco a simple question–and Cocco gave him an obvious answer! Since NBC News/MSNBC has been Ground Zero in this long war, she named the names of two major players–both of them major NBC figures. This was an obvious thing to do. But it involved a statement that could never have been allowed on Meet the Press.

At this point, we’ll start guessing: For that reason, Russert chose his panel carefully. It wouldn’t suffice to pick a panel which would beat up on Clinton five-to-one. No! If even one non-storebought was part of the panel, that person might make an obvious statement about the source of the gender-trashing! Five-to-one would never do. It had to be six-against-none.

It’s much as we asked you last week: Would this have happened any differently inside a press corps run by Brezhnev? We’ll guess: Russert knew what you couldn’t be allowed to hear. He chose his panel accordingly.

Of course, it isn’t hard to assemble a panel of Soviet-style stooges if you have the whole mainstream “press corps” to choose from. In recent weeks, NBC News has turned playing dumb into a piece of performance art. Routinely, its pundits have no earthly idea why the Clintons have talked about gender-trashing. Nor can they guess what Bill Clinton meant when he said that pundits have been urging his wife to get her *ss out of the race. Meanwhile, Brian Williams (“The Man from Price Club”) was deeply puzzled when Scott McClellan said that the press corps rolled over for war–and David Gregory was flummoxed too. At NBC, no one can understand any of this. And they keep assembling panels of stooges who will extend these charades.

How easily can NBC book these panels? Very, very easily. In fact, the mainstream “press corps” is full of well-behaved boys and girls who would happily go to the gallows before they would betray their cohort–their fraternal order, their cartel, their clan, their small mafia. They know–in their core–what they must never tell. On the surface, E. J. Dionne is the smartest and most decent of all these hack-worthies. But last Friday, E. J. finally stopped his trembling and wrote a column about the sexism/misogyny claims. Go ahead! Read his entire piece! See if you can find a single sentence where he expresses his own view on the subject. Most laughably, see if you can find a single place where he states the obvious–where he names the names of the major players who have been at the heart of this conduct.

These people are part of a small, stupid mafia. As we’ve been noting since 1999, they never betray the clan; they will play dumb to the death. To his credit, Kurtz was willing to tell the truth about the obvious shape of this problem. But uh-oh! When he played tape of those five gender-trashing pundits, one of the five was Chris Matthews–and one of them was Mike Barnicle. Both are charter members of NBC’s gang of Clinton/Gore-hating throwbacks. We Irish!

Let’s guess: Commissar Russert knew the obvious. NBC News has been Ground Zero in this stupid, disgraceful episode. That in mind, he knew two other things. He knew that Doris Kearns Goodwin was safe. And he knew Marie Cocco might tell.

DISCUSSION, AMERICAN-STYLE: Russert’s program–his discussion of this topic–came straight from the Brezhnev era. By way of contrast, two networks staged American-style discussions. You were allowed to hear varied views and the most obvious facts.

On May 22, Judy Woodruff conducted a discussion of this topic on The NewsHour. To review Cocco’s balanced presentation, just click here. (“I am not arguing that this is why she's losing. What I'm saying is that this has been the cultural atmosphere.”) On May 25, Kurtz conducted his own American-style discussion. To review it in full, just click here.

As Cocco and others spoke with Kurtz, Russert’s gang of apparatchiks scratched their heads in sheer bewilderment over this deeply puzzling charge. Cocco could never have done Meet the Press. She might have said things that were accurate.

WHEN BRODER MET EXCELLENCE: When it comes to basic reality, Dean Broder likes his nice and straight. At the start of yesterday’s column, he got a few things off his chest:

BRODER (6/1/08): As dramatic as the contests have been for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, they have not been enough to satisfy the mythmakers. With the general election imminent, the fiction writers in both parties insist on versions of the battle that bear little resemblance to reality.

How often, for example, have you heard or read that Hillary Clinton has endured a far-rougher hazing from the press and the public than has Barack Obama? Or that John McCain has gotten a free ride from the punditocracy?

How often have we read that Clinton has endured a “far-rougher hazing from the public?” Could we guess? Most likely, none? At any rate, Broder is sick of all the myths and fictions–especially the ones churned up by Clinton–and he knows the best way to refute them. “The best evidence to test these and other propositions arrived last week in a report from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University,” he writes. Then he explains how this new report worked–bungling massively as he goes.

Which is worse: The hapless analyses of the press corps performed by our academic elites? Or the bungled descriptions of same from our journalists? Broder likes his reality straight. But in large measure, this is inaccurate:

BRODER: From Jan. 1 through the early spring primaries, teams of researchers monitored the campaign coverage of 46 news outlets, among them the most prominent and influential newspapers, network television and cable broadcasts, and Web sites.

The researchers eliminated reports that dealt primarily with events of the day, the horse-race pieces about tactics, strategies and results, filtering out the variations dependent on how well the candidates were doing at the moment. They eliminated almost four-fifths of the 8,800 items. What was left were what they call "the dominant personal narratives in the media," analyzing "the candidates' character, history, leadership and appeal." Each story was rated as positive, negative or neutral.

Some of that even seems to be accurate–though in some cases, it’s hard to tell. But then, complete confusion is the norm when the “scholars” from the “Project for Excellence” report on one of their studies.

Yep! The word “impenetrable” was invented to describe this group’s gruesome reports. But even the folks at the Project for Excellence (PEJ–sic) can’t be blamed for all Broder’s errors. “Each story was rated as positive, negative or neutral?” In the past, some studies of press coverage have worked from that model–but that’s not the case with this new study, as is clear if you simply read the report. Broder barely seems to have skimmed it. But then, there’s no other way to handle this group’s gruesome studies–if you want to torture a column from their inept, murky work.

No, Virginia. In this new study, the researchers didn’t “rate each story as positive, negative or neutral.” Nor do we have the slightest idea what this collection of words might mean:

“The researchers eliminated reports that dealt primarily with events of the day, the horse-race pieces about tactics, strategies and results, filtering out the variations dependent on how well the candidates were doing at the moment. They eliminated almost four-fifths of the 8,800 items.”

Does anyone know what he’s talking about? After the torture of skimming the PEJ’s prose, we have no idea. At one point, the Project’s report does say this: “As part of PEJ’s regular Campaign Coverage Index, the study analyzed every campaign story from January through May 18, almost 8,800 stories.” (Just click here. Second paragraph.) Is that what Broder is talking about when he cites those “8800 items?” We don’t have the slightest idea–but the analysis of those “8,800 stories” seems to involve a different question from the one The Dean is discussing in this part of his column. But then, it’s never easy to figure out the murk and the gloam in these gruesome reports. And quite commonly, it’s hard to figure what the PEJ studies are actually trying to measure.

(By the way: Why it would improve a study to “eliminate” four-fifths of the relevant stories? Are we supposed to think that no favorable/unfavorable claims are made in the types of stories Broder describes in that passage?)

What exactly is the PEJ’s new report actually trying to measure? After sifting through its soul-crushing language, we have little real idea. We’ll only say what we’ve said before about the reports this group churns out. To wit:

It sounds like the group is trying to measure which candidate got friendlier (or tougher) press coverage. But it’s not at all clear that this is something this study could actually measure. In short, it’s hard to know what this report actually does tell us (if anything). And that’s because the Project for Excellence just isn’t very excellent! Its “scholars” rarely seem able to explain (or justify) their ever-shifting methodologies. Yes, the Broders sometimes rush to hype their results. But it seems they can never explain them.

(In July 2000, for example, the Project released a study of the coverage of Candidates Bush and Gore. But in that report’s basic summary, the PEJ plainly misstated its own data. There was no partisan tilt to the error–but then too, no journalist noticed the error. Of course, that study said that the press corps was murdering Gore–so Broder didn’t give it a column. Please note: That study’s conclusion was clearly correct. But the PEJ’s report quite plainly misstated the data.)

This new study isn’t necessarily worthless–but the report is opaque, impenetrable. Then too, the Project makes groaning methodological leaps–leaps it would be hard to justify. We’ll guess that this study couldn’t be salvaged. For now, let’s offer four caveats:

Bye-bye, Maureen and David: Many bloggers have prayed for the day when Maureen Dowd gets her walking papers. In this study, that day has arrived. In the part of this study which deals with newspapers, only front-page news reports are analyzed. Here’s the problem: When we think of the treatment a candidate gets from a newspaper, we tend to think, in substantial part, of the treatment dished out in the op-ed (and editorial) pages. But those pages are missing from this study! There’s nothing automatically wrong with such a practice. But it’s just one way in which this study measures something a little bit different from the thing you might have in mind when you think about “friendly/tough coverage.”

Shifting methodology: The PEJ has done studies of this general type in the past several elections. But the group’s methodology seems to shift every time–and no one bothers explaining why. This study’s methodology is massively different from the methodology used in Campaign 2000, for example. What was wrong with that methodology? What makes this new methodology better? No one says. Sorry, that’s weird.

You don’t need no stinking examples: The high-toned “scholars” at PEJ never seem to give examples. Again: Unless they’ve completely misstated their procedures, they didn’t “rate each story” as “positive, negative or neutral” in this new study. But in previous projects which did follow that model, they didn’t give examples of stories which got rated in each category; thus, we never saw what kinds of stories got rated as “positive” under their practices. But then, no examples of their work are offered this year either.

Under this year’s methodology, it seems that the researchers went through news reports counting up statements within all the stories which were favorable/unfavorable about Candidate X. But this didn’t just include statements by the journalists who wrote the stories; it includes quoted statements by other people–by voters, candidates or candidate surrogates (among others). This may be a decent methodology–but once again, it may not be what the reader has in mind when he thinks of “favorable/unfavorable” coverage. Under this system, how do different stories get rated? No examples are given. We have no way to get an idea.

Absolut grandiosity: Are you there, vodka? It’s us, the Project for Excellence. No, we aren’t Chelsea Handler fans, though we think her new book has a catchy title. But here’s a fairly obvious critique: Imaginably, the Project’s methodology may be OK–as applied to a single news org. That is, it might imaginably provide a good reading of how the New York Times (or NBC Nightly News) has treated the various candidates. (Then again, of course, it may not.) But the Project doesn’t content itself with creating individual ratings for a number of major news orgs; instead, it tries to sample a blend of news orgs which represent the “press” as a whole (for the list, click here). Almost surely, this attempt is silly. Almost surely, there is no rational way to “sample” the vast array of news orgs which make up the national media. How silly does it get when the PEJ tries? In this study, the Washington Post is sampled roughly every other day–and so is the Ashtabula, Ohio Star Beacon. We find it very hard to believe that there is any “scientific” justification for the blend of sources which make up this study. Almost surely, this is made-up, make-believe pseudo-sampling. Even if the methodology works for a single news source, the Project offers no reason to think that the sample here really represents the overall “press corps.”

Many other problems exist with this latest study. We’ll cite one last major groaner below. But first, let’s return to Dean Broder, letting us know how lucky we are to have this brilliant reality check on all those gruesome myths and fictions about the current coverage.

No, Broder doesn’t seem to have read this study; he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea how it was conducted. On the other hand, he was quite thrilled with the lessons he learned from the study he can’t quite describe. His boxed sub-headline says this:

A study shatters some notions about which candidates were getting a free ride or a hard time from the media.

Broder seems to like this study because its conclusions, however shaky, shoot down ideas he doesn’t like. In particular, he batters Clinton around; this study “rebuts her favorite myths,” he happily says in his column. Unfortunately, a study can only “shatter notions” or “rebut myths” if it’s methodology is sound. But the PEJ constantly does awful work, and its “scholars” are rarely able to explain what it is that they’re actually measuring. This new report is highly impenetrable, like most of the PEJ’s work. It’s an embarrassment–but, then too, an enlightenment–to see the kind of “press analysis” conducted at the very top of our academic pig-pile.

In closing, might we offer one last point about the absurdity of the PEJ’s method? About the absurdity of their central conceit–the notion that you can really quantify favorable/unfavorable coverage?

In this study, the “scholars” attempt to assemble their “insights” by noting how many statements about Candidate X are favorable or unfavorable. At one point, they seem to give a hypothetical example (click here–near the bottom):

PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE: “Source of statement” designates the person who is making the statement. This is not necessarily the author of the piece, but the person who expresses the particular statement. For example, if a newspaper story quotes an unnamed voter as asserting that, “Senator Obama represents change,” that means the source of the statement is the voter and not the journalist writing the piece.

Presumably, that would count as a “favorable” statement, although we’re not entirely sure why. (Or would it be “neutral?” We have no idea.) At any rate: Under this project’s methodology, the scholars sift through selected articles, counting up statements about the hopefuls which are favorable or unfavorable. Then, they count all the statements up, and convert them to a percentage.

There’s one gigantic problem with this. This completely gigantic problem never seems to enter the scholars’ minds.

Here’s the problem: Isn’t there a major difference between two unfavorable statements if one is true and the other is false? All during Campaign 2000, for instance, reporters made unfavorable statements about Candidate Gore (as the Project’s 2000 study noted–link below). But uh-oh! Adding injury to insult, many of the unfavorable statements were blatantly false! Surely, most people see a major difference between an unfavorable statement which is accurate and fair–and an unfavorable statement which is just false. But under the Project’s not-so-excellent system, these statements get scored the exact same way. In other words, the scholars never make any attempt to score statements for basic accuracy.

In a way, it’s a perfect marker of the age–an age in which the very concept of “accuracy” no longer seems to exist. Last week, for example, journalists made an endless number of negative statements about Candidate Clinton–many of which were baldly untrue, or at best profoundly tendentious. But the PEJ’s scholars don’t adjust for untruth. They pore over selected stories, counting up the number of times Chris Matthews says something favorable/unfavorable. But a good deal of the time, Matthews is lying, stretching wildly, or just playing it dumb with such statements. But uh-oh! As with their brethren inside the media, these scholars don’t care about that! They don’t care if a statement is false. They only care if it seems “favorable.”

Then, along comes the Dean of All Pundits. To all appearances, he couldn’t be bothered to read the report, to see how the “scholars” were proceeding this year. But so what? He knows the value of a good study; a good study is one which reinforces his viewpoint! He disappeared the study in Campaign 2000–the study which said that his mainstream “press corps” was kicking the sh*t out of Candidate Gore. But he pimps the study in 2008, when it says they aren’t murdering Clinton.

As you may know, you do inhabit the Planet of the Apes, a fact which may explain that film’s enduring appeal on cable.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: In July 2000, the Project grossly misstated its own data–the data from its punishing study of the treatment of Candidates Bush and Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/02). Journalists didn’t notice the error–and Broder didn’t cite the study, which said, quite correctly, that his cartel was murdering Candidate Gore. Hardball was singled out, quite correctly, as a source of attacks against Gore.

This year’s study deserves respect. Whatever the merits of its procedures, it says something Dean Broder likes.