HORSE-AND-BUGGY HORSE-RACE REPORTING: At the top of the Washington Posts front page, Dan Balz couches his statements somewhat carefully. But in this passage, Balz displays a problem with the way the Post reports its own horse-race polling:
BALZ (10/1/08): Negativity about the country's financial prospects continues to lift Obama, but he now has a narrower advantage over McCain in Post-ABC polling than he did last week. Overall, the senator from Illinois holds a slim lead in the new national poll, with likely voters dividing 50 percent for Obama and 46 percent for McCain.
In the last poll, Obama led by a nine-point margin. At that time, McCain advisers sharply criticized the results as being out of step with other surveys. Still, the new poll marks only the second time either of the candidates has reached 50 percent. Other national polls also indicate that Obama opened up a lead as the nation's economic situation deteriorated over the past two weeks.
Almost surely, many readers will think that Obama has lost ground to McCain in the past weekperhaps five points. They may miss Balzs subtle suggestion that last weeks poll may have been wrong. And of course, no single poll can say, with certainty, who gained ground within the past week. To his credit, Balz fleetingly mentions other polls in this otherwise shaky passage.
The problem: Like other papers, the Post likes to headline its own poll, although theres no apparent reason to think that its more accurate than other major polls. How much does the Post like to showcase its poll? Today, Balzs report sits atop the papers page one, under this snore-bore headline:
Most Voters Worry About Economy
Majority Consider Situation a Crisis
Its hard to believe that would count as big newsexcept for the desire to promote the Posts own poll. Result? Many readers may think theyve seen a report, at the top of page one, in which Obama has dropped five points.
In fact, last weeks Post poll was an outlier. No other major poll, before or since, has registered a nine-point lead; the chances are good that Obamas real lead was not nine points at the time. But the Post excluded results from other polls when it reported that nine-point lead last week, on September 24. Economic Fears Give Obama Clear Lead Over McCain in Poll, its front-page headline announced. At that time, Balz made little attempt to qualify his claims:
BALZ (9/24/08): The poll found that, among likely voters, Obama now leads McCain by 52 percent to 43 percent. Two weeks ago, in the days immediately following the Republican National Convention, the race was essentially even, with McCain at 49 percent and Obama at 47 percent.
If the Post had included results from other polls, readers might have been warned that this result was an outlier. But the Post didnt include other results. Simply put, this is a very bad way to report horse-race polling.
This morning, at various informative web sites, citizens can see horse-race results from a range of major pollsand they can see the average results derived from those polls. To cite one example, Real Clear Politics says Obamas lead is now 4.8 points, based on the various polls it considers. (Last week, on September 24, they had it at 3.5 points.) But atop page one of the Washington Post, readers are given some horse-and-buggy horse-race reporting. They are told about only one polland theyre barely warned about the fact that all polls are subject to error.
Where do Obama and McCain stand today? All polls offer approximations; its best to consider a range of polls. When a major newspaper hypes its own poll, its keeping its readers barefoot and clueless. Last week, the Posts report was needlessly misleading. It is so again today.
Then the journalists take over: Then the journalists take over, picking and choosing their poll results to drive their own preferred narratives. In Sundays New York Times, for example, Frank Rich emoted thusly. None of this was explicitly false. But it was quite misleading:
RICH (9/28/08): Then came Black Wednesday...for McCain. As the widely accepted narrative has it, his come-to-Jesus moment arrived that morning, when he awoke to discover that Barack Obama had surged ahead by nine percentage points in the Washington Post/ABC News poll. The McCain campaign hastily suited up its own pollster to belittle the findingonly to be drowned out by a fusillade of new polls from Fox News, Marist and CNN/Time, each with numbers closer to Post/ABC than not. Obama was rising most everywhere except the moose strongholds of Alaska and Montana.
By now, we can see that McCains campaign was probably right when it belittled the findings of the Post poll. Meanwhile, Obamas numbers were actually dropping in several major tracking polls in the period Rich described. On that Black Wednesday (9/24), Obama stood even with McCain in the Gallupa six-point drop in just five days. He had dropped two points in the Daily Kos tracker in that same five-day span.
Meanwhile, did the three polls cited by Rich have numbers closer to Post/ABC than not? We have no idea what that construct means. But for the record, Fox and Marist recorded leads of 6 and 5 points respectively; CNNs most recent national poll showed a 4-point lead. (CNN-Time doesnt seem to do any national polling.) Why did Rich mention only the nine-point leadthe clear outlier? Because Rich is a valuable nominal ally, his motives must not be explored.
Who would win if we voted today? Barring strange effects, Obama. But last week, the Post ran an outlier poll on page oneand frankly, Rich took things from there.
IMAGINARY NUMBERS: This item doesnt matter a lotexcept for the light it sheds on the state of American pseudo-journalism.
In Tuesdays Post, Lisa de Moraes reported the size of Friday nights debate audience. She started with a glancing jibe at unnamed media stars:
DE MORAES (9/30/08): In spite of navel-gazers' forecast that last Friday's presidential debate might become the most watched telecast in TV history, cracking 100 million viewers, the face-off between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama wound up drawing only about 52.4 million people.
...[I]t's about 10 million viewers shy of the crowd that collected for the first presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry on Sept. 30, 2004. That debate clocked 62.5 million viewers. In both 2004 and 2000, the first of the three presidential debates was the most watched.
The audience for the McCain-Obama verbal skirmish...certainly didn't come near that amassed by the Mother of All Presidential Debates, the Oct. 28, 1980, smackdown between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which bagged nearly 81 million viewers.
The audience grows to 55 million if PBS claim of 2.5 million viewers is credited, de Moraes reported.
To which navel-gazers did de Moraes refer at the start of her piece? Presumably, those at MSNBC. Using Nexis, we can find no indication that anyone at CNN or Fox made that silly prediction last weekpredicted 100 million viewers, a number which would have totally shattered all previous records. But on MSNBC, Chris Matthews pimped the imaginary number all weekand by D-Day, his colleagues were pimping it too. About one hour before the debate, here was Norah ODonnell:
ODONNELL (9/26/08): I think for Obamathis is an audience of 100 million people. Obama has got to show that he can pass the commander in chief test. And Obama can also raise the question about how McCain responds to crises. And that is how he can play into the headlines that I think are going to be big tomorrow.
By now, ODonnell had borrowed that bull-roar. (Earlier in the hour, she had referred to what is expected to be an audience with as many as 100 million people.) And uh-oh! Even Chuck Todd, MSNBCs designated driver, peddled the number on Nightly News. Slickly, he found a way to make colleagues clowning more plausible:
TODD (9/26/08): We could have 100 million people see this tonight.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.
TODD: People will TiVo it, because they're going to be at Friday night football.
Slick! Dragging in TiVo, Chuck found a way to make that number a bit more imaginable.
By the way: De Moraes mentioned the oddness of Friday nights date. Of course, it didn't help that the first presidential debate of this election cycle took place on a Friday, one of the lowest TV-viewing nights of the week, she wrote. We never saw anyone ask or explain why this debate occurred under Friday night lights. Alas! If this held down the size of the crowd, it probably short-changed Obama.
EXILED TO THE PASTURE: Yesterday, an e-mailer called us a crazy old coot, while making a nice allusion to Frost. Regarding our affect, hes probably right, though well stick to our work on the merits:
E-MAIL (9/30/08): I've been reading The Howler for 6 or 7 years. You're actually the first page I go to in my political and media reading. Needless to say, I agree with you nearly all the time. Your work is [incomparable].
Some days, like today, you sound like you've just gone 'round the bend. Maybe you need a week doing whatever it is you do up in the pasture.
That was it! But wed have to say he was right about yesterdays affectand so, if he sends the car around, well happily head for that week in the pasture. But on the merits, well again suggest you consider the way Invented Group Stories grow and spread. After today, well move along, proceeding to other topics.
First, a slander on Dan Kennedy! An e-mailer suggested that Dan too had become irate about McCains body language, despite failing to mention it in real time. It cant be so, we e-mailed backand wed have to say our faith was borne out. Its true: When he live-blogged Fridays debate, Dan didnt say a word about McCains lack of eye contact. (Basically a tie, he judged. But low expectations probably translate into this being considered a good night for McCain.) He did mention the eye contact flap the next day, in a piece for The Guardianbut only to mention, quite correctly, that others had voiced this complaint:
KENNEDY (9/27/08): Perhaps because I'm not a visual person, I thought last nights debate was essentially a tie. Both Barack Obama and John McCain came across as knowledgeable and substantivea refreshing contrast to George Bush's bumbling performances of 2000 and 2004.
But much of the morning-after media reaction is focusing on the visuals and the atmospherics. Obama, calm and cool, presented himself well. McCain, grumpy and lumpy, sneering and condescending, refusing even to look at his opponent, did not.
Dan goes on to quote several pundits. But he doesnt say that he himself was bothered by McCains body lingobody language he failed to mention in his real-time blogging.
We thought Jim Fallows was somewhat differentthough he did mentioned the lack of eye contact in real time. Fallows posted at his Atlantic blog during the actual debate. This was his only post while the debate was occurring:
FALLOWS (9/26/08): Unless it happened when I glanced away, up until this moment, 77 minutes into the 90-minute debate, John McCain has not once looked at Obamawhile listening to him, while addressing him, while disagreeing with him, while finding moments of accord. This is distinctly strangeif anyone else notices. Obama is acting as if this is a conversation; McCain, as if he cannot acknowledge the other party in the discussion. More on non-body-language points tomorrow a.m.
Fallows, whose work we frankly despise (reasons below), had watched 77 minutes of debateand the only thing he could find to say concerned McCains body language. He thought the conduct was distinctly strangebut he didnt seem sure that anyone else would even notice the conduct. For ourselves, we think this is amazingly silly. We cant recall if we noticed this during the debate, but if we did, we didnt give a flying fig about it. We were troubled by other things: By the way McCain seemed to be driving the debateby the way he could frame the first half-hour around the nonsense of earmark reform. (Its a gateway drug! he absurdly said)
Three hours later, Fallows posted again about the debate. Again, he mentioned the eye contact problem, in this hesitant passage:
FALLOWS (9/27/08, early morning): Neither Obama nor McCain made any serious mistakes (except, perhaps, for McCain's churlish on-stage personal bearing); neither had any moments of surprising brilliance or rhetorical flash. McCain performed closer to the top of his debating range than Obama did.
The emphasis on perhaps was his. Again, Fallows cited the body language; he said it might have been a serious mistake, though on balance, he seemed to say it wasnt. (In the past decade, Fallows has frequently written about debates for Atlantic, focusing on the points of body language which modern journalists luvv.) Yes, he mentioned the lack of eye contact again. But wed have to say he was less than outraged by what hed been forced to observe.
But uh-oh! By mid-afternoon on Saturday, that had dramatically changed. On the merits, we think that what follows is just absurd, for reasons well briefly offer. But again, we note a familiar pattern, in which a gang of journalists develop operatic reactions to some troubling eventonce their cohorts Standard Approved Group Story has come into clear relief. Fallows has played this sick game in the pasthelping send George Bush to the White House in one critical effort:
FALLOWS (9/27/08, mid-afternoon): Everything John McCain did on stage last night was consistent with trying to score tactical points in those 90 minutes. He belittled Obama with the repeated "he doesn't understand"s; he was explicitly insulting to him in saying at the end "I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience" for the job (a line Joe Biden dare not use so bluntly on Sarah Palin); and implicitly he was shockingly rude and dismissive in refusing ever to look Obama in the eye. Points scoredin the short term, to the cheers of those already on his side.
If Fallows werent a nominal ally (this year), wed tell you that his outrage strikes us as pure, unvarnished bull-sh*t.
By mid-afternoon on Saturday, the gentleman was in high dudgeon. McCain had been explicitly insulting and belittling to Obama; hed also been shockingly rude and dismissive in refusing to look Obama in the eye. The night before, Fallows hadnt even been sure that anyone would notice the conduct. Now, he thundered, ranted and flailed, in the company of other shrieking men.
Again, well simply tell you this: If Fallows really observed such shocking/insulting conduct, its a little odd that he wrote so tepidly about it in real time.
For ourselves, we think those complaints are cosmically silly. In our world, if Candidate X doesn't believe that Candidate Y has the knowledge or experience for the job, then Candidate X gets to say as much, and Candidate Y has to show that hes wrong, as Obama apparently did to the satisfaction of most viewers. (Should Candidate Gore have been kept from saying such things about Candidate Bush?) But put that aside, and just notice this: Fallows didnt record these aggressive observations until the Group Story was firmly in place; in real time, his comments were mild. By the time he knew The Group was behind him, he bellowed his hurt, loud and clear.
Unfortunately, this is a very familiar pattern among the mainstream press corps. Unfortunately, Fallows played the same game in July 2000, badly damaging Candidate Gore.
You see, the journalist was outraged then about the vile ways of Al Gore. He bought the Approved Group Story in every respect; it became an Atlantic cover story in July 2000, the one which had Vile Gore on the cover, a fang coming out of his mouth. In large part, his story would served as the press corps Bible for their Group Attack on Gore in that falls debates. Al Gore is willing to do and say anything, Fallows had claimed, at great length.
Poor Jim! By Saturday afternoon, he was shocked by McCains insulting conductby the outrageous conduct he so tepidly mentioned as he watched the debate in real time. But then, we know just how he must have felt! We recall being shocked, in July 2000, when we put in all the work which led to our five-part report on Fallows Atlantic report. By the end of that week, we called Fallows report a fraud. Its why we dont think much of people like Fallows. Bleating out his cohorts Group Story, he helped pave the road to Iraq.
In July 2000, we thought that report was grossly dishonest; well suggest that you reread our series now, if you want to recall the day when Fallows was not your ally. (For Part 1, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00.) But by mid-afternoon on Saturday last, Fallows was bleating and crying againmuch as he did eight years ago, in thrall to a different Village Tale.
To tell the truth, our e-mailer was right; our affect was utterly foolish yesterday. We dont know Atrios, and we overdid wildly. Until you consider the endless harm these outraged script-pimpers have done.
Nominal ally of Bush: Heres the synopsis which appeared above Fallows well-scripted report:
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (7/00): Al Gore is the most lethal debater in politics, a ruthless combatant who will say whatever it takes to win, and who leaves opponents not just beaten but brutalized. But Gore is no natural-born killer. He studied hard to become the man he is today.
Today, the ruthless killer holds the Nobel Peace Prize. On the other hand, Fallows is still a squealing pimp who agrees to recite Approved Tales. (And yes, that is the pattern you saw in all that heightened screaming last weekend.)
Be sure to read our five-part series to marvel at Fallows evidence.