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THE CASE OF THE MISSING BLONDES! Kathleen Parker was worried—again—by the color of Dem women's hair: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JUNE 28, 2007

TOMORROW: Edwards v. Coulter—and last thoughts on Yoffe.

MILBANK BOLLIXED AGAIN: Once again, Dana Milbank ran into too many big words when he watched a Big Dem give a speech. White House hopeful Bill Richardson was giving the speech—with subsequent Q-and-A’s, no less!—and poor Milbank found himself stuck in the audience:
MILBANK (6/28/07): Leading a detailed, hour-long discussion about Iran in which words such as "fissionable" and "Abrahamic dialogue" were invoked, Richardson demonstrated why he is running a distant fifth for the Democratic presidential nomination, and why, in a CNN poll released this week, 54 percent of respondents had either never heard of him or had no opinion of him.
Poor Milbank! The discussion in question had lasted an hour, and several large words had been said! Later in his confessional “sketch,” Milbank helps us see how brutal it was. The speech “occupied nine single-spaced pages and had the warning ‘3,325 words’ at the top of the text,” he explains. He details the brutality:
MILBANK: When an attempt at a joke fell flat, the candidate added: "That's supposed to be funny." He could be heard to utter phrases such as "I revert back to the Nunn-Lugar initiatives, which have been underfunded," and "the IAEA naturally has the lead on nuclear issues," and "there are at least six major reasons why Iran is strategically significant." When he finally uttered the words "in conclusion," Richardson chuckled, perhaps realizing the challenge he had presented to his listeners.
Imagine being asked to sit through such statements as “the IAEA naturally has the lead on nuclear issues!” And imagine how it feels to be told that there are six reasons for something!

For years, the Post has reveled in its growing know-nothing culture, with various pundits rushing to complain about the long speeches they’re forced to endure—speeches which may contain long words and statements of stunning complexity. In August 2000, David Broder said he almost fell asleep during Gore’s convention speech—a speech which plainly rocked the election, sending Gore soaring in the polls. In recent years, Broder has continued to grouse when Hillary Clinton makes him listen to detailed discussions, and Milbank recently embarrassed himself with the utterly ludicrous “Washington Sketch” about all the big, long words Gore used when he discussed his new book. The sheer stupidity of such presentations doesn’t faze these toasted Posties, who express the type of Versailles culture often found among powdered elites.

Tomorrow, we’ll offer final thoughts on that op-ed column in which the Post asked someone who counts on her fingers to expound about global warming. Increasingly, the Post seems incapable of being embarrassed. But life has always been like that inside the world’s great pleasure domes.

NAGOURNEY LOVES NARRATIVE: Yesterday, the New York Times led its front page with this report by Adam Nagourney, a report about a new national poll. The degree of incompetence Nagourney displayed almost defies comprehension.

Simple story: Nagourney is almost wholly unable to simply report simple facts. He was reporting a national poll of voters aged 17-29. But uh-oh! Over and over, he hammered shaky frameworks and narratives around the data the polling provided. Often, the frameworks he forced on his data struck us as screamingly bogus.

In fairness, Nagourney is sometimes able to report basic facts without explaining what he thinks the facts tell us. Here was his paragraph 4, for example:
NAGOURNEY (6/27/07): More than half of Americans ages 17 to 29—54 percent—say they intend to vote for a Democrat for president in 2008. They share with the public at large a negative view of President Bush, who has a 28 percent approval rating with this group, and of the Republican Party. They hold a markedly more positive view of Democrats than they do of Republicans.
These statements are fairly straightforward—and perfectly accurate, as a look at the data confirms. But then, Nagourney’s next two paragraphs were also fairly straightforward:
NAGOURNEY (continuing directly): Among this age group, Mr. Bush's job approval rating after the attacks of Sept. 11 was more than 80 percent. Over the course of the next three years, it drifted downward leading into the presidential election of 2004, when 4 of 10 young Americans said they approved how Mr. Bush was handling his job.
At a time when Democrats have made gains after years in which Republicans have dominated Washington, young Americans appear to lean slightly more to the left than the general population: 28 percent described themselves as liberal, compared with 20 percent of the nation at large. And 27 percent called themselves conservative, compared with 32 percent of the general public.
But uh-oh! In that last paragraph, Nagourney started citing narrow differences between two groups without saying a word about the inherent limitations of polling. (“Margin of error,” anyone? A perfunctory statement about sampling error came a bit later in the report.) Soon, apparently bored to tears, Nagourney began expressing his views as he doled out the data. In the following passage, for example, he offers a highly subjective judgment—a judgment we’d be disinclined to affirm:
NAGOURNEY: In one potential sign of shifting attitudes, respondents, by overwhelming margins, said they believed that the nation was prepared to elect as president a woman, a black person or someone who admitted to having used marijuana. But they said that they did not believe Americans would elect someone who had used cocaine or someone who was a Mormon.
But uh-oh! According to the accompanying chart, the young voters were not asked if they “believed that the nation was prepared to elect as president a woman [or] a black person.” In reality, respondents had responded to this:
POLL QUESTION: Do you think most people you know would vote for a candidate who is black/is a woman?
Nagourney’s paraphrase was quite weak. Meanwhile, the meaning he forced on the young voters’ answers struck us as massively shaky. Did the young voters say, “by overwhelming margins,” that “they believed that the nation was prepared to elect a woman?” In fact, 38 percent of these young voters said that most people they know would not vote for a woman! To us, that doesn’t justify Nagourney’s upbeat account of these data—an account he offers in a passage which simply misstated what these voters were asked. If these young voters are actually right—if that many people won’t vote for a woman—it strikes us as very unlikely that a woman candidate could be elected. We have no idea why Nagourney saw these data in the way he did—and we have no idea why the thought this represented a “potential sign of shifting attitudes.” But it would have been better if he’d simply reported the (hard-to-interpret) data, and kept his fine tales to himself.

But then, all through the second half of his news report, Nagourney built frameworks around the polling data—frameworks the data didn’t seem to support. How’s this for a screaming howler?
NAGOURNEY: The Times/CBS News/MTV Poll suggests that younger Americans are conflicted in their view of the country. Many have a bleak view about their own future and the direction the country is heading: 70 percent said the country was on the wrong track, while 48 percent said they feared that their generation would be worse off than their parents'. But the survey also found that this generation of Americans is not cynical: 77 percent said they thought the votes of their generation would have a great bearing on who became the next president.
The survey “found that this generation of Americans is not cynical,” Nagourney weirdly said, before citing a poll result that seems to us to have no obvious bearing on that question. (Of course, the votes of this generation will have a bearing on who becomes president.) But by now, Nagourney had surrendered his reporter’s pose. He was now “explaining” every result:
NAGOURNEY (continuing directly): By any measure, the poll suggests that young Americans are anything but apathetic about the presidential election. Fifty-eight percent said they were paying attention to the campaign. By contrast, at this point in the 2004 presidential campaign, 35 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they were paying a lot or some attention to the campaign.
“By any measure?” Could these frameworks get more foolish? Yes, that 58 percent figure is higher than the figure from four years ago (when the election was getting much less news coverage). But it’s still a fairly low number—compared, for example, to a “measure” of 70 percent, or even 80! What kind of journalist would even think of dumping a framework like this on these data? But by now, Nagourney was simply interpreting at will. And how reckless was he about basic procedures? Consider this laughable offering:
NAGOURNEY: But when it came to the war, young Americans were more optimistic about the outcome than was the population as whole. Fifty-one percent said the United States was very or somewhat likely to succeed in Iraq, compared with 45 percent among all adults. Contrary to conventional wisdom, younger Americans have historically been more likely than the population as a whole to be supportive of what a president is doing in a time of war, as they were in Korea and Vietnam, polls have shown.
Again, Nagourney completely ignores basic sampling error when he bases an unqualified statement on this narrow difference in polling results. But he ignores a second major factor. Uh-oh! The poll of young adults was taken last week; the other poll—the poll of all adults—was taken “earlier this year,” we learn in the small print under a graphic. Of course, favorable attitudes toward the war have been dropping as the year has proceeded. Would young voters seem “more optimistic” if all voters had been sampled last week? There is, of course, no way to know—and there is no sign that this basic question entered Nagourney’s head.

As we read this front-page report, we were struck by its author’s blatant incompetence. It’s stunning to think that work this bad defines the press corps’ upper end.

Special report: A day in the life!


PART 2—THE CASE OF THE MISSING BLONDES: On Sunday, God him/herself decided to rest—but big-name pundits split the difference. Heroically, they report for duty—while giving their brains the day off. You see, Time’s Rick Stengel wasn’t alone when he spoke that form of Stengelese on last Sunday’s Chris Matthews Show (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/07). Stengel shared billing with Kathleen Parker, who offered her latest insightful remarks about the color of Dem women’s hair.

A bit of background: Parker’s host was wondering, as always, about various childish boy-girl aspects of Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House. For reasons only he can explain, recent appearances by the Dem hopeful had brought The Last Supper to mind:
MATTHEWS (6/24/07): OK. Well, let's talk to Elisabeth [Bumiller]. I am stunned that—at these Last Supper scenes. Where the Last Supper in history was all men, every scene you see with Hillary is a lunch, and it's all women. She is advertising her sisterhood. Is that something that she can use to help sell herself as a future strong person defending this country, or does it get in the way? Elisabeth?
As usual, Matthews’ framework was surpassingly weird. And his factual premises were certainly wrong. (Does Clinton only appear at lunch? In his mind, the answer was yes) But poor Bumiller managed to answer. “No, I don't think it gets in the way. It's the base of her support,” she said. But uh-oh—Parker was lying in wait. Chris turned to her for further wisdom—and she went straight for the hair:
MATTHEWS: Kathleen, being surrounded by women, does that make a case for commander in chief? Or does it make a case against it?

PARKER: It makes a case with a certain demographic. And I noticed the picture on the front of the Washington Post the other day showed her with all of these women and her crew, and did you notice there was only one blonde out of about 15 women? So it's sort of—I thought that was very telling.
Say what? Parker was referring to this photo, which graced a front-page report about Clinton’s closest advisers. (Eleven women were there—not fifteen.) But even Matthews seemed to be puzzled by the meaning his guest had managed to draw from the unexplained Case of the Missing Blondes. The hair color of Clinton’s advisers? Parker found it “very telling.” Hungry for knowledge, Matthews asked what The Case of the Missing Blondes tells us:
MATTHEWS (continuing directly): What does that mean? Yeah, what are you suggesting?

PARKER: I don't know, but it was definitely noticeable. You know, it's just out.
Parker thought it was “very telling,” but she didn’t know what it meant.

But then, Parker has been deeply struck by dark hair among Democratic women before. Back in November 1999, the press corps was pretending to be disturbed by the fact that Naomi Wolf was advising the Gore campaign. They invented all manner of smutty and stupid complaint to flesh out their month-long faux outrage. And Kathleen Parker was up to the challenge of pretending that this was worth talking about. In the Chicago Tribune (and other papers), the brilliant scribe offered us this:
PARKER (11/10/99): In the media world, everyone's a-titter over the revelation that feminist-author/glam-girl Naomi Wolf has been advising Vice President Al Gore in his bid to become Numero Uno. Or the "Alpha Male," as Wolf reportedly put it.

So gleeful has been the response, you'd have thought the VP had been discovered exorcizing the demons of his unfortunate childhood with a navy-blue dress. Alas, he was only taking wardrobe advice from the raven-haired Wolf, who, frankly, has nothing but my envy and admiration.
For the record, the “glam-girl” in question was 37, married and a mother. Two of her books had been chosen as New York Times “Notable Books of the Year;” by now, Wolf and Gore had both flatly denied the (unsupported) “speculation” about that troubling wardrobe advice. But Parker was struck by Wolf’s “raven hair!” Soon, she took things a bit further:
PARKER: Let's face it. Finding out that Al Gore, the unsexiest man alive, was keeping a secret adviser—who at a glance could be the sister of another well-known, raven-haired former Washington belle—has sex appeal. It's the single thing this "Beta Male" has been missing.
Huh! Wolf’s dark hair made Parker think of a former Washington belle—Miss Lewinsky. At a glance, Wolf could be her sister! By now, if you can’t guess at the meaning of “dark hair/no blondes” among Democrat gals, we’ll leave you to your ongoing innocence. (Digby, we’ll let you explain.)

Then, as now, there were too many women of a certain hair color floating around a Big Dem’s campaign. When you saw one, you just thought of the other—there was simply no getting around it! This Sunday, Parker found herself struck, all over again, by all the dark hair in a Dem entourage. It was “very telling,” she said—although she didn’t know what it meant. But then, it’s all in a (Sun)day’s work when big pundits—press gods—fail to rest.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For a five-part report on the trashing of Wolf, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/03.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Ifill totters.