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ALL ABOUT THE GIRL! Clinton was in Africa, working on AIDS. So naturally, the Times thought of Monica: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, AUGUST 29, 2006

ERRING ON THE SIDE OF ERROR: We’re often amazed when major reporters try to explain the concept of “margin of error.” And uh-oh! In Sunday’s Times, Jack Rosenthal—“president of The New York Times Company Foundation” and “a senior editor of The Times for 26 years”—wrote an entire column explaining how polling actually works. (He was subbing for public editor Byron Calame, off on a well-earned vacation.) Soon enough, Rosenthal got around to the topic of “sampling error.” Quickly, he served up this groaner:
ROSENTHAL (8/27/06): For a typical election sample of 1,000, the error rate is plus or minus three percentage points for each candidate, meaning that a 50-50 race could actually differ by 53 to 47.
Yes, that statement is technically accurate. If such a poll comes up 50-50, it’s possible that Candidate A is actually leading, 53-47. But then, Candidate A could also be leading by 54-46—or by 57-43, for that matter. Rosenthal seemed to imply that the actual margin can’t exceed six points. This is, of course, wildly wrong.

No, we aren’t planning to hash this all out, but we’ve long marveled at this sort of bungling. Similarly, journalists often grab our attention when they traffic in “margin of error” (and its near-relations). For example, here was Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the next day’s Times, discussing Bush and Katrina:
STOLBERG (8/28/06): [Bush’s] approval ratings have never rebounded from their post-hurricane plummet. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this month found that 51 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the way Mr. Bush had responded to the needs of hurricane victims, a figure statistically no different from last September, when 48 percent disapproved.
How many readers could say exactly what Stolberg meant by the highlighted statement—when she said that Bush’s current 51 percent disapproval was “statistically no different” from the earlier 48? We’ll guess that very few readers could say—and we’ll guess that Stolberg might flail a bit too. We’ll tell you one thing: If you were managing Bush’s career, you wouldn’t be thrilled with that three-point change. You’d know that it might not mean a durned thing—that his actual approval might not have changed. But then again, you’d also know that the odds ran against that.

By the way: Reporters can be very selective in the way they apply the concept of “statistical significance.” In this case, Stolberg remembered to invoke the concept—in a context where it was helpful to Bush. But not long ago, Bush’s overall approval jumped from 36 to 37—and many news orgs just played it straight. Omigod! Bush had experienced a bump, these news orgs rushed off to declare.

ALL ABOUT THE GIRL: Truly, what a revealing profile of the heart and soul of the modern press corps! In today’s Times, Celia Dugger writes a long, intriguing, front-page report about Bill Clinton’s work on AIDS in Africa. She considers Clinton’s record as president—and his work on the issue in the years that have followed. Clinton “plays a unique role in shining a light on the problem,” Bill Gates says at one point in the piece. But omigod! Early on, Dugger can’t help herself. Early in an informative piece, Dugger is found typing this:
DUGGER (8/30/06): [O]n this trip, Mr. Clinton seemed anything but a man tormented by guilt. Rather, he reveled in his role as a private citizen championing people with AIDS.

''The reason I do this work I do is that I really care about politics and people and public policy,'' he said in one of several interviews, scornfully dismissing questions about whether his global AIDS work is a form of redemption for what he failed to accomplish on the issue as president, or for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Clinton was busting his ass about AIDS. But to Dugger, the question just had to be asked. What did all this say about Monica? Can’t we get back to The Girl?

But then, for the empty souls of our mainstream press corps, it has always been All About Monica—there’s never been anything else on their minds. And yes, this has changed human history. For example, why did they wage that War Against Gore—the war which sent George Bush to the White House? As early as June 1999, Howard Kurtz was asking major scribes about the pounding they were handing to Candidate Gore. Here’s what one big scribe told him:
KURTZ (6/25/99): The tone of the early interviews [with Candidate Gore] is revealing. While the vice president has stressed specifics, such as improving education and health care for the elderly and curbing suburban sprawl, the media have pursued other subjects....

Roger Simon, chief political writer for U.S. News & World Report, defended the focus on Lewinsky: "It's still the story that has shaped our time. We want to hear him say what a terrible reprobate the president was, while defending his record. We're going to make him jump through the hoops. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.”
They were going to make Gore “jump through the hoops” until he said what they longed to hear about Monica. (Fuller text below.) But then, for these empty souls, it has always been All About Monica. When Gore discussed health care, they thought about Monica. When Clinton works on AIDS in Africa, that reminds them of Monica too.

These empty, empty, fatuous souls simply can’t get her out of their heads! Eight years later, she still haunts their dreams. Why is Monica in today’s article? For the same reason we find ourselves in Iraq. We live in an age of fatuous souls. As Mandy Grunwald said long ago, it’s all about The Girl. That’s all these people really understand; they’ll trick her into every story. Are people suffering—and recovering—in Africa? Yes, they are—and that’s a great story. But first, they must bring up The Girl.

CLINTON’S REPLY: It’s pointless to try to speak to these souls. But God bless him! Bill Clinton tried:
DUGGER: ''The reason I do this work I do is that I really care about politics and people and public policy,'' he said in one of several interviews, scornfully dismissing questions about whether his global AIDS work is a form of redemption for what he failed to accomplish on the issue as president, or for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

''I'm 60 years old now, and I'm not running for anything, so I don't have to be polite anymore,'' he said. “I think it's all a bunch of hokum,'' he added, calling such speculation psychobabble. ''I have never met anybody who spent all their time talking about everybody's motives who at the end of their life could talk about very many lives they had saved,'' he said.
Make no mistake. We actually are in Iraq today because of their obsession with Monica. Even today, she haunts their dreams! In 1999, when Gore’s race began, they could think of nothing, no one else.

TODAY’S FRONT PAGE OF THE TIMES: Why does the Ramsey case share today’s front page with Mo? Duh. All About The Girl.

WARREN WAS TROUBLED BY ALL THE SCUM TOO: In his standard circuitous manner, Jim Warren also told Kurtz that the press was beating on Gore due to Clinton. Here is the fuller text from which the previous excerpt was taken:
KURTZ (6/25/99): The tone of the early interviews is revealing. While the vice president has stressed specifics, such as improving education and health care for the elderly and curbing suburban sprawl, the media have pursued other subjects.

On ABC's "20/20," Diane Sawyer asked about the perception of Gore as boring, whether Hillary Rodham Clinton was "bigfooting" him by running for the Senate, and about his defense of the president during the impeachment process. Gore said that Clinton's behavior with Lewinsky was "inexcusable."

CBS's Bob Schieffer also pressed the vice president about backing his boss, saying at one point: "But he turned out to be a liar."

NBC's Claire Shipman asked: "Are you worried that you will pay the ultimate price for Bill Clinton's impeachment?"

Roger Simon, chief political writer for U.S. News & World Report, defended the focus on Lewinsky: "It's still the story that has shaped our time. We want to hear him say what a terrible reprobate the president was, while defending his record. We're going to make him jump through the hoops. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

Schieffer said he was struck by how Gore's response to the Lewinsky question on three network shows "was, almost to the comma, the very same answer."

"He's an acquaintance," Schieffer said of Gore. "I've seen him in various settings over the last 10 or 15 years, and he can be very funny. But somehow when that light goes on you see a different Gore and he comes off a little wooden."

Simon and others say it is easier for journalists to criticize Gore because he is part of a 6 1/2-year-old administration, while most are unfamiliar with the details of Bush's record in Texas. "We know more about Gore, and maybe that's part of it," said the Tribune's Warren. "We're sort of bored with Clinton, and many of us think Clinton's a moral scum, and probably subconsciously, at a minimum, we taint Gore by virtue of his association.”
Poor babies—they were “sort of bored.” But Monica? She made them feel alive.

Meanwhile, why was Schieffer so deeply troubled? Gore had given similar answers to all three nets when they asked him about Darling Monica! Schieffer, playing his standard Nice Guy, told Kurtz he was troubled by that.