A poverty of journalism: Wow. Only a professor/educational expert would write a column as foolish as this world-class groanerand only the New York Times would publish it. More tomorrow.
But first: Consider the journalistically impoverished way the New York Times and the Washington Post reported last weeks release of the nations poverty rate for 2009.
What is the nations current poverty rate? It wont be released until next year. Last Thursday, the poverty rate was released for 2009. It stood at 14.3 percent.
The nations news orgs found various ways to gasp at how high that rate was. In fact, that poverty rate strikes us as surprisingly lowperhaps because of some of the measures passed by President Obama and the Democratic Congress. Heres a bit of background informationinformation one of these papers worked rather hard to obscure.
The federal government has been measuring poverty since 1959. In that year, the poverty rate stood at 22.4 percent. (For the New York Times graphic, click this.) The rate dropped steadily through the year 1975, when it bottomed out around 12 percent, to judge from the New York Times graphic.
From 1975 to the present, the poverty rate has bumped up and down within a fairly narrow range. According to the New York Times graphic, it has bumped up and down from a low of 12 percent to a high of 15 percent, generally reacting to economic cycles. (According to Census Bureau tables, it has fluctuated between 11.1 percent and 15.2 percent. Click here, scroll to page 51.)
Last year, the nations poverty rate stood at 14.3 percent. At two earlier junctures in the last thirty years, the poverty rate has gone higher. It was higher in six of the past 28 measured years: in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1992, 1993 and 1994.
Presumably, the poverty rate will be even higher this year. But given the massive economic collapse of 2008, we were a bit surprised that last years rate wasnt higher. (We even wondered if there was some reason why the rate didnt go higher. Had some of the Democratic spending measures actually had some effect?) But your big newspapers knew how to fix that lack of maximum drama! At both the Times and the Post, hapless journalists swung into action, helping create a novelized tale that juiced and justified the papers front-page coverage.
By far, the Times was the lesser offender. Last Friday, the paper led its front page with this news report by Eric Eckholm. As he started, Eckholms factual claims were accurate and respectable. We would only quibble with a theme he introduced in his third paragraph:
ECKHOLM (9/17/10): The percentage of Americans struggling below the poverty line in 2009 was the highest it has been in 15 years, the Census Bureau reported Thursday, and interviews with poverty experts and aid groups said the increase appeared to be continuing this year.
With the country in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, four million additional Americans found themselves in poverty in 2009, with the total reaching 44 million, or one in seven residents. Millions more were surviving only because of expanded unemployment insurance and other assistance.
And the numbers could have climbed higher: One way embattled Americans have gotten by is sharing homes with siblings, parents or even nonrelatives, sometimes resulting in overused couches and frayed nerves but holding down the rise in the national poverty rate, according to the report.
The poverty rate was the highest in fifteen years, Eckholm correctly reported. But by paragraph 3, he just couldnt help it! The numbers could have climbed higher, he sadly reported, noting a fact which is true every year. As he continued, Eckholm devoted a lot of time and effort to imagining the various ways the poverty rate could have been worse. That was silly, but his basic reporting was sound. (The Times did bungle its graphic, of course, three different ways. See below.)
Eckholms basic reporting was sound. The same cant be said for the Washington Posts front-page report, authored by Carol Morello. Simply put, you no longer live in a post-enlightenment world when your nations most famous political newspaper reports a major story this way:
MORELLO (9/17/10): In the second year of a brutal recession, the ranks of the American poor soared to their highest level in half a century and millions more are barely avoiding falling below the poverty line, the Census Bureau reported Thursday.
About 44 million Americansone in sevenlived last year in homes in which the income was below the poverty level, which is about $22,000 for a family of four. That is the largest number of people since the census began tracking poverty 51 years ago.
The snapshot captured by the census for 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency, shows an America in the throes of economic upheaval.
There! That was much more dramatic! But what gives? In the New York Times, readers were told that the poverty rate was the highest it has been in 15 years. In the Washington Post, readers heard something much more dramatic: The ranks of the poor had soared to their highest level in half a century!
Why did the Times say highest in 15 years, while the Post said highest in half a century? Simple! The Times was using poverty ratethe percentage of people in poverty. But in a clownish bit of pseudo-reporting, the Post chose to use absolute numbers. By this truly absurd calculation, poverty was worse last year than in 1959, when the poverty rate stood at 23 percent. You had to go all the way to paragraph 19 before Morello let you know the actual status of the actual poverty rate:
MORELLO: While the number of the country's poorest people is higher than in any other recorded period, the rate is not without precedent. The last time it was this high was 1994. And in the early 1960s, it was over 20 percent.
Duh. In fact, the poverty rate was higher as recently as 1994. In 1993, it stood at 15.1 percent.
Why does this matter? Heres why:
Excited partisans can imagine Morellos report being driven by various forms of bias. Liberals can imagine the Post overstating the degree of economic carnage in Obamas first year. Conservatives can imagine the newspaper tugging at heartstrings, helping readers see the need for increased federal help.
But any reader can see the sheer dumbness of the Posts front-page report. No, the poverty rate didnt soar in 2009, though it may well go higher this year. More remarkably, its astounding to think that a major newspaper would work from absolute numbers, rather than from percentages, in making comparisons which stretch across fifty years. (In 1960, the U.S. population was 181 million.) But the Post even worked from absolute numbers in presenting its one puny graphic. A newspaper which reasons and reports this way just isnt a serious enterprise.
That said, the Post made matters worse the next day with this hapless page-two report. Before he was done, Michael Fletcher had even plainly implied that the poverty rate had hit its highest point in fifty years. That insinuation was grossly inaccurate:
FLETCHER (9/18/10): Deborah Weinstein, a longtime advocate for the poor, calls the news that one in seven Americans is living in poverty "a national emergency."
But for much of Washington's political class, the shocking new poverty numbers provoked not alarm about the poor but further debate over tax cuts for the middle class.
McDermott said he has been urging his colleagues to take a fresh look at poverty. The new report showed that the ranks of the American poor soared to their highest level in half a century in 2009. Meanwhile, millions more are existing just beyond the poverty line, which is about $22,000 a year for a family of four.
The official poverty rate is just one aspect of the economic upheaval unleashed by the recession. Since 2007, the country has lost almost 4 million wage earners. And for the first time since the government began tracking health insurance in 1987, the number of people who have health coverage declined, a circumstance destined to change when the Obama-led health-care overhaul fully kicks in by 2014.
We have no quarrel with Fletchers analysis, in which he stressed the lack of political clout among the poorheroically bashing each major party for not caring as much as he does. But Fletcher misstated the facts of the case, plainly implying that the poverty rate was at a 50-year high.
People who report in such ways are dumb or dishonestmost likely both. In a more serious nation, they would be quickly fired.
Did the poverty rate soar last year? Surprisingly, noit pretty much didnt. Was last years poverty rate a shocking new number? Only if youre an uninformed dolt, as many are at these two leading papers. Indeed, uninformed dolts remain in great supply at our two greatest American papers. This kind of reporting has been in abundance over the past twenty yearsand these kinds of groaning intellectual errors have most often served the forces of reaction during that period.
They dont understand the use of percentages! If you dream of being shocked, well advise you to go with that.
The Times attempts to offer a graphic: The Washington Posts report was much worse. But good lord! The New York Times found three different ways to bungle its basic graphic, the one which shows poverty rate!
First, is the Times still working in English? This is the text which sits atop that graphic even today, on-line:
NEW YORK TIMES GRAPHIC, ON-LINE: The overall poverty rate rose 14.3 percent, the highest since 1994, according to Census Bureau numbers on poverty, income and health insurance.
Huh? That statement remains either incoherent or inaccurate. Presumably, the mighty paper meant to say that the poverty rate rose to 14.3 percent. That said, the text which appeared in our hard-copy Times had been bungled even worse:
NEW YORK TIMES GRAPHIC, HARD-COPY EDITION: The overall poverty rate rose 14.3 percent from the year before, the highest since 1994, according to Census Bureau numbers on poverty, income and health insurance. [our emphasis]
The poverty rate rose 14.3 percent from the year before? Someone tried to correct that howlertried and failed. Meanwhile, the graphic in the hard-copy paper shows the line for the poverty rate two separate times, creating an utterly puzzling chart. (One of the two lines on the chart is unexplained.) And not only that: If you can tell which line is the poverty rate, it seems to show the poverty rate never dipping lower than 12 percent. Go aheadlook at the on-line graphic, even as it exists today. Would anyone think that the poverty rate has gone as low as 11.1 percent? The Times seems to have made some sort of minor mistake in transposing the original Census Bureau graphic.
The front-page report in the Post was much worse than that in the Times. But even today, the Times graphic carries a bungled textand its basic data line seems to be misplaced.
KRISTOF STILL PLAYS BY THE RULES (permalink): Nick Kristof remains the worlds greatest man, by his own admission. Proof of this pudding lies in his soul-stopping new column, where this greatest man dies on the cross for the sins of his fellow citizens.
Is Nicholas Kristof the worlds greatest man? Well start with his plainly heartfelt headline, in which his glory prevails:
KRISTOF (9/19/10): Message to Muslims: Im Sorry
Many Americans have suggested that more moderate Muslims should stand up to extremists, speak out for tolerance, and apologize for sins committed by their brethren.
Thats reasonable advice, and as a moderate myself, Im going to take it. (Throat clearing.) I hereby apologize to Muslims for the wave of bigotry and simple nuttiness that has lately been directed at you. The venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists, should embarrass us more than you. Muslims are one of the last minorities in the United States that it is still possible to demean openly, and I apologize for the slurs.
Message: He cares! Indeed, Kristof took things a good deal farther as he finished his column. At the end of the piece, he formally apologized again, having revealed that he is sickened when he sees the Muslim worlds decent people lumped in with its few terrorists.
This would all be well and good if Kristof werent such a total balls-out cowardif he werent such a gruesome moral fraud. If he didnt know the key rule of his guild: Big players just dont challenge Fox.
Whats wrong with Kristofs column, in which he highlights his own moral greatness? As before, so again: Whats wrong is Kristofs refusal to name the powerful people who are producing that venom on the airwavesthe venom which has him so sickened.
Instead, Kristof calls the name of a little person, as his type typically does.
How morally great is Nicholas Kristof? So great that hes even willing to challenge the editor of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald! Where does Kristof get so much courage? In this passage, he goes after a person youve never heard of:
KRISTOF: Im inspired by another journalistic apology. The Portland Press Herald in Maine published an innocuous front-page article and photo a week ago about 3,000 local Muslims praying together to mark the end of Ramadan. Readers were upset, because publication coincided with the ninth anniversary of 9/11, and they deluged the paper with protests.
So the newspaper published a groveling front-page apology for being too respectful of Muslims. We sincerely apologize, wrote the editor and publisher, Richard Connor, and he added: we erred by at least not offering balance to the story and its prominent position on the front page. As a blog by James Poniewozik of Time paraphrased it: Sorry for Portraying Muslims as Human.
I called Mr. Connor, and he seems like a nice guy. Surely his front page isnt reserved for stories about Bad Muslims, with articles about Good Muslims going inside. Must coverage of law-abiding Muslims be balanced by a discussion of Muslim terrorists?
So brave! So potent! So daring! But heres the problem: Connor doesnt just seem like a nice guy; we would guess that he is probably is. After all, he only posted his clumsily-worded apology after he had published a perfectly decent original front-page article. (And no, he didnt apologize for being too respectful of Muslims, though thats the way people like Kristof tend to paraphrase when theyre beating on little people.)
But good guy or not, Connors a very minor player in this countrys recent trashing of Muslims. Once again, Kristof fails to name the names of the truly powerful people who have been driving that venom on the airwaves. He refuses to challenge the powerful people who engage in this conduct every damn night, influencing millions of others as they do.
He refuses to go after Fox.
Can we talk? Kristof telephoned and named Richard Connor, the editor of a small daily paper. But once again, he didnt phone or name Sean Hannity, who disinforms millions of people each night as he spreads that venom around. He didnt phone or name Newt Gingrich, who engaged in his latest ridiculous fear-mongering at the Values Voters Summit (click here). He didnt phone or name Pamela Geller, a textbook bigot who has been driving the venom on the web.
In short, Kristof phoned and named a relatively innocuous minor player. In the process, he pimped himself in the New York Times as a man of surpassing high character. But his actual character is once again marked by massive cowardice. Once again, he failed to name the powerful people who really are driving this war.
Its hard to be a bigger cowarda bigger moral fraud. Indeed, how big a fake is Kristof? Lets examine the one recent column in which Kristof did name a person who is fairly well-known. You can read that column by clicking this.
Fearlessly, Kristof name-called Marty Peretz, for this unfortunate blog post. (In his unfortunate, semi-coherent post, Peretz made the ultimate major mistakehe criticized the New York Times.)
Peretz has been a bit of a nut about these topics for many years. Many people beat Kristof to this punch, criticizing that blog post. But Peretz remains a relatively minor playerand, except when it comes to this topic, he is generally a man of the semi-left. Kristof is brave when it comes to such people. By way of contrast, he knows that he must cower and flee when it comes to much more powerful peoplepeople of the hard right.
Kristof has played these political games for a very long time now, as he has politicked his way up the press corps ladder. (Former Rhodes Scholars can be like that.) He is willing to name-call Marty Peretz for a single blog post. He is willing to tackle the Portland (Maine) Press Herald for an unfortunate apology.
But Kristof knows the rules of his guildyou must never go after Fox. You must never name or quote its powerful leading players. You must bow to their societal power. You must keep your big trap shut.
There has been venom on the airwaves in the recent war against Muslims. Hannity has been the leading figure in driving that cable venom. But Kristof has never named his name, or quoted the things he has repeatedly said. And because he is a classic fraud, the worlds greatest man never will.
Thrills get sent up liberal legs as this classic fraud plays by the rules, traveling all the way to Maine to display his own moral greatness. Note to Sean: You can keep it up! You have a pass from Nicholas Kristofand you always will.
In the past twelve months, according to Nexis: Kristof hasnt ever named Sean Hannity. He hasnt ever named Rush Limbaugh. He hasnt ever named Newt Gingrich.
He mentioned Glenn Beck once, in passing. He didnt cite a single thing Beck has ever said.
On Sunday, he called out Richard Connor! Aint moral greatness grand?