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Daily Howler: Ifill should have been dumped from her debate--back in 2004
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ONE PARTY FIGHTS, ONE DOESN’T: Ifill should have been dumped from her debate—back in 2004: // link // print // previous // next //

NO BUNGLE LEFT BEHIND: Wonderful news appears to reside on the front page of this morning’s Post! “Needy Students Closing Test Gap Under ‘No Child,’” the headline says. Maria Glod offers the summary:

GLOD (10/2/08): Since enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, students from poor families in the Washington area have made major gains on reading and math tests and are starting to catch up with those from middle-class and affluent backgrounds, a Washington Post analysis shows.

Glod quickly offers a taste of the evidence: “In [Maryland’s] Montgomery County, for instance, students in poverty have earned better scores on Maryland's reading test in each of the past five years, slicing in half the 28 percentage-point gulf that separated their pass rate from the county average.” But there’s a groaning methodological blunder in that type of statistical reasoning—a type of statistical reasoning which dominates the Post’s “analysis.” Can you identify the blunder? (Though it’s obvious when it’s explained, we’ll guess that most people will not.) We’ll correct Glod’s paper tomorrow. But here’s a question we’ve been asking for decades: Do they ever report on floundering kids without committing basic bungles themselves?

THE SEARCH FOR MCCAIN’S CONDESCENSION: Was McCain condescending/insulting/contemptuous toward Obama during Friday’s debate? That’s a matter of opinion or judgment, of course. That wasn’t our reaction—in real time or after watching the debate a second time. And yet, a major journo—a name so big it would rock your world—does feel that McCain behaved this way, he has told us by e-mail. And this is a dude we much like.

As we’ve noted this week, some writers who screamed the loudest about this supposed outrage (on Saturday) didn’t seem to register such outrage in real time. It’s clear that Joe Klein was just making it up—was getting in line with emerging Group Wisdom. About the others, you can judge. But on one part of this intriguing story, the public has semi-weighed in.

As part of its newly-released poll, Pew asked 832 people who watched the debate to give a one-word impression of McCain’s performance. (They also asked about Obama.) Here is the question they asked:

PEW (10/1/08): Please tell me what one word best describes your impression of John McCain in the debate. Tell me just the one word that best described him.

This type of question is commonly asked by pollsters, though it almost always leads to errors by journalists, who think the numbers which result are percentages, not raw numbers. (Example below.) In this case, a small bit of light gets shed on one question: To what extent did average voters think McCain was insulting/contemptuous?

(For Pew’s overview, click here. For the full report, just click this.)

For the record, these 832 registered voters thought Obama did a better job than McCain. 72 percent said Obama did a “good” or “excellent” job; only 59 percent said the same of McCain. But very few voters seemed to notice McCain’s insulting/contemptuous conduct. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there. But it does raise a political problem for people who thought that it was.

What one-word replies did viewers offer when asked to describe McCain’s performance? Before we show you the most common answers, here is the Pew report’s summary:

PEW: While both candidates receive favorable reviews for the debate, those who watched had very different impressions of the candidates’ performances. “Confident” is the word used most often by voters to describe Obama’s debate performance, while “inexperienced” and “intelligent” are also mentioned frequently. Voters use the word “experienced” most commonly to describe their impressions of McCain’s debate performance, followed by “old” and “knowledgeable.”

Very few voters seemed to see the “shockingly rude and dismissive conduct” James Fallows belatedly bleated about—the “incredibly condescending attitude” Atrios recalled from those radio clips (by Saturday afternoon, that is). According to Fallows and Atrios, McCain’s conduct was shocking, incredible—but few Pew voters seemed to see this. Here are the most frequent one-word reactions voters gave when asked to describe McCain’s performance. Remember, these are raw numbers. These are not percentages:

One-word impressions of McCain’s debate performance (asked of 832 viewers):
Experienced 61
Old 30
Knowledgeable 33
Confident 26
Strong 20
Honest 19
Condescending 18
Good 15
Aggressive 13
Angry 13
Fair 11
Prepared 11
Sincere 11
Excellent 10

What one word would we have offered? We wouldn’t normally answer such questions. But of the words found on that list, we would have ruefully gone with “aggressive.” Ruefully, we thought McCain was driving the debate. We were surprised when polling suggested that voters thought Obama had “won.”

At any rate: Of 832 debate viewers, 18 offered the word “condescending;” 13 others said “angry.” (A bit farther down the list, nine other viewers said “arrogant.”) For the record, this survey was conducted from Saturday through Monday. It’s possible, therefore, that these viewers’ reactions were affected by post-debate public discussions.

This doesn’t mean that John McCain wasn’t “shockingly rude” or “incredibly condescending,” of course. But uh-oh! It would suggest that very few voters perceived his conduct that way. Fallows, of course, is a sensitive fellow; we recall how deeply upset he was by Al Gore’s character, eight destruction-filled years in the past. But there’s a political problem when liberals scream about “shocking” conduct—if no one else sees that it’s there.

Was McCain “shockingly rude,” as Atrios said? That strikes us as a vast overstatement—and it seems that voters didn’t see it that way. But then, we aren’t that sure that Atrios saw it that way, based on his first two posts.

Easy to be hard: You know things are bad on the liberal web when even Kevin Drum bungles this topic. As he looked through the new Pew poll, Kevin thought those raw numbers were percentages. He thus fell in line with the herd:

DRUM (10/1/08): From the latest Pew poll, John McCain doesn't seem to have done well in the first debate. The good news for both candidates is that the top impression they left was a positive one: 50 percent thought Obama was "confident" and 61 percent thought McCain was "experienced." The bad news for McCain is that substantial minorities also thought he was old, condescending, aggressive, and angry. Obama, by contrast, left audiences with only two negative impressions.

Easy come, easy go. That's the price you pay for acting like a jerk, I guess.

Yow! Kevin thought that 18 percent of viewers had called McCain “condescending”—that nine percent called him “angry.” And then, he fell in line with the herd. He said this was the price McCain paid “for acting like a jerk.”

But uh-oh! In real time, Kevin didn’t think McCain behaved like a jerk—or if he did, he kept the thought to himself. This was the “Wrapup” to Kevin’s live-blogging of the debate. In the full ninety minutes of his live-blogging, Kevin had mentioned McCain’s deportment only once:

DRUM (9/26/08): Am I off base, or was this one of the most soporific presidential debates in a while? Frankly, I didn't think either one of them did very well. There was way too much rambling, and way too few sharp points. Overall, McCain was more lively than Obama, but if the point of the debate was for Obama to show that he could hold his own on national security, then count it a win for Obama. I wouldn't call him a big winner, but he certainly did at least as well as McCain, and that might have been all he needed.

Of course, within a few minutes I expect conservatives will all be telling us that McCain was simply brilliant tonight. Absolutely masterful. I expect many repetitions of McCain's talking point about Obama being naive. If they say it often enough, they figure eventually everyone will agree with them.

In his wrap-up, Kevin forgot to mention the way McCain had behaved like a jerk. And please note the cosmic irony here. In his second paragraph, Kevin rolled his eyes and mocked the way conservatives would soon invent a Group Story. “If they say it often enough, they figure eventually everyone will agree with them,” Kevin said.

In fact, conservatives have behaved that way for years; so has the mainstream press corps, although toilet-trained “career liberal” writers have tended to run from that fact. But yesterday, it was Kevin who was getting in line with a story—a story he didn’t tell in real time.

By the way: In real time, when did Kevin mention McCain’s deportment? Like Josh, he mentioned it very late in the debate, after receiving an e-mail. (In this case, Kevin named the e-mailer; it was TPM poster Todd Gitlin.) Like Josh, Kevin had somehow managed to live-blog the debate from 9 o’clock to 10:24 without mentioning John McCain’s lack of eye contact, or any part of McCain’s vile conduct. (Josh held out until 10:26.) When he did mention the lack of eye contact, he did so only because Gitlin e-mailed. This too was like just like Josh.

Final point: Readers used to love it when we described the MSM doing this sort of thing. Now, when our nominal allies behave the same way, they recall a philosopher’s thoughtful words. Surely, there must be “more innocent explanations” for such conduct when it’s done by such high-minded people. People who think this way play for The Shirts—and only The Skins commit fouls.

ONE PARTY FIGHTS, ONE DOESN’T: Should Gwen Ifill be hosting tonight? We would say no, she should not. By way of explanation, we agree with both points from this part of Jim Rutenberg’s report in the Times. But we highlight one key word:

RUTENBERG (10/2/08): Ms. Ifill’s authorship of a book that delves into the career of Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has raised some concern among independent media analysts, who cited potential appearances of conflict of interest.

But some Democratic strategists—and even one former adviser to Mr. McCain—describe the right-wing criticism as an effort to warn Ms. Ifill away from tough questioning of Ms. Palin (or to pre-emptively undermine Ms. Ifill’s credibility in the event Ms. Palin turns in a bad performance).

Duh! Of course this is in part an attempt to undermine Ifill and pre-excuse Palin. But that’s a large part of the reason why Ifill shouldn’t be hosting. Almost surely, her book will be much more valuable if Obama wins next month. And that creates the appearance of a conflict—an appearance of conflict which will now create a massive, confusing distraction.

Should Ifill be hosting tonight? No, she should not. There’s absolutely nothing special about Ifill’s work; plenty of people could have handled this task. She should have told the debate commission about her book—and they should have chosen someone else, someone without an appearance of conflict. Someone who wouldn’t have created this massive distraction.

Many liberals will disagree with this view—thereby showcasing our side’s lack of perspective. In this reaction, we show our failure to comprehend the bumbling way our own party has worked.

For what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time we’ve considered Gwen Ifill’s conflicts here:

In 2004, Ifill probably shouldn’t have hosted the Cheney-Edwards debate—because of her personal friendship with Condoleezza Rice. In August 2003, we noted that personal friendship—a few weeks after Ifill rolled over and died in a critical interview session with Rice. That particular conflict seemed real, and outrageous—but news of this problem largely died here. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/03, with links to previous reports.

There’s more to this, of course:

In 2004, Bob Schieffer probably shouldn’t have hosted the third Bush-Kerry debate, because of his personal friendship with Bush. In January 2003, we had noted his buddy-buddy friendship—and the intense family connections which link the Schieffers to the Bushes. But news of this problem largely died here. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/12/04, with links to previous reports.

(Don’t even ask us about Russert partying hearty with Rummy, or about the hapless Ted Koppel playing BFF with Colin Powell. Those problems can be found in our archives too.)

Ifill and Schieffer shouldn’t have hosted debates in 2004. Ifill shouldn’t be hosting tonight. But uh-oh! One party complains about such things—and historically, one party doesn’t. The same is true when McCain’s campaign plays it tough with NBC News. Liberals complained when Rutenberg reported that Tom Brokaw has tried to help NBC smooth things over with McCain’s campaign. But guess what? Brokaw’s network, and its cable arm, kicked the sh*t out of Clinton and Gore—and the Democratic Party just sat there and took it. “Liberal journals” also wet their pants and refused to discuss what was happening.

Our side has long refused to complain. Now, we’re inclined to complain when the other side sensibly does.

Ifill is one of our most worthless journalists—and no, she really shouldn’t be hosting. Her potential conflict has created a massive distraction—and this has played right into the hands of the GOP. In 2003, she rolled over and died when she got that big interview with her pal, Condi. Tonight, she creates a massive distraction—a distraction which won’t help your side.

How they think about these events: Atrios notes Katherine “Kit” Seelye worrying over a crucial question: Before tonight’s debate, will Biden help Palin with her chair? But it’s even worse than Atrios thinks. Chris Matthews raised this problem at least two times on last evening’s Hardball (7 PM edition). So far, no transcript.