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WE’RE WITH STUPAK! Stupak got famous two weekends ago. The Times still hasn’t explained it: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2009

The way our (sports) pundits reason: An NFL coaching decision has been widely debated this week. As we’ve watched sports pundits discuss this decision, we’ve been struck—and saddened—by the way many have reasoned.

More specifically, we’ve groaned to see the way their work has resembled that of their political colleagues. We’ve always thought that American sports writers were a bit brighter than our political “journalists.” No such luck, it now seems.

The decision in question was made by Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots. In their debates, sports pundits have displayed three traits we’ve often observed among their political brethren:

Undying love of conventional wisdom: Many sports pundits have seemed genuinely angry about the fact that Belichick did something unconventional. (Trent Dilfer, come on down! And take your meds!) In political journalism, the pundit class is often happiest when They All Get To Say The Same Thing. In this case, many sports pundits came unhinged because one of the NFL’s coaches didn’t do The Thoroughly Typical Thing. This reaction seemed quite familiar.

The instant recourse to mind-reading: Many sports pundits instantly turned to mind-reading, thus “explaining” the motive behind Belichick’s unconventional move. (Kill the pig! For one especially foolish example, just click here.) Of course, this is also a common, numb-nutted approach among our political pundits.

The inability to conduct an analysis: Finally, we were struck by how weakly many sports pundits were able to reason about Belichick’s decision. They complained that he didn’t do the conventional thing—and then, they began explaining his motives. But had he done the smart thing—made the right decision? Many pundits showed no sign of knowing how to approach such a question. To them, Belichick’s decision was unusual. Automatically, this made it wrong.

Did Belichick make the right decision—presumably, the decision which gave him the best chance to win? Given the fact that he was playing Peyton Manning on the road, we would guess that he probably did. (Note: Once the Patriots got to fourth down, there was a good chance they would lose no matter what they did. Many sports pundits showed no sign of grasping this basic fact. We’d guess that Belichick did.)

If Belichick had decided to punt, could he have kept Manning out of the end zone? Possibly—but what were the odds? In this morning’s New York Times, a computer study judges that Belichick took the better approach, by a narrow margin.

Our reaction? Someone should bang that computer, hard! The computer says this: Had Belichick punted, the odds were 75.7 percent that Manning wouldn’t have reached the end zone. Does anyone think the Patriots had that good a chance to deny him?

Back to our central point: Despite the propaganda we constantly churn about our stunning rationality, we humans tend to reason quite poorly. For decades, the political press corps has taken delight in demonstrating this awkward fact about our chimp-like tendencies. They love reciting conventional wisdom, no matter how blatantly foolish it is. They love to mind-read peoples’ motives. And they’re often very weak at performing real analysis.

This week, many sports pundits followed suit. They descended to the level of the political press.!We were sad to see that occur. We always thought the nation’s sports scribes were smarter than the hacks.

When they were good: In 1998, we noted a groaning fact. A major sports writer had been quite careful in quoting Michael Jordan, even as NBC’s Lisa Myers was doctoring all sorts of quotes concerning the Clintons. But what the heck! It was only impeachment!

To see the political press corps clown as a sports colleague played by the rules, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/98. (Earlier, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/98.) Michael Wilbon was careful in his (sports) work. Lisa Myers was out spreading mayhem.

WE’RE WITH STUPAK: It’s possible that the current attempt at health reform will fail over issues concerning abortion. The Stupak-Pitts amendment to the recently-passed House bill remains the focal point of contention surrounding this ongoing matter.

Stupak-Pitts came center stage on Saturday, November 7, during final wrangling in the House about the bill. (The bill, containing Stupak-Pitts, passed in the House that night.) But what would the Stupak-Pitts amendment do? Heaven help any New York Times reader who would like to find out!

In the ten days since Stupak-Pitts became famous, the New York Times has made no attempt to explain, in its hard-copy editions, what the famous amendment does. And this morning, matters only got worse! This morning, the Times let the intrepid Katherine “Kit” Seelye take a crack at explaining Stupak-Pitts. (Although she never mentions the amendment by name in her short report.)

Seelye tackles Stupak! For readers of our greatest newspaper, this represents the journalistic equivalent of a slow, painful, agonized death.

Seelye starts by describing a new TV ad by supporters of abortion rights—an ad which takes place in a comedy club. But before Seelye’s editor could get out the hook, the scribe had tried to explain what Stupak-Pitts would do. (For a slightly altered version of Seelye’s piece, just click here.)

What follows is the first attempt to explain Stupak-Pitts in the New York Times’ hard-copy edition—the paper’s first attempt in the ten days since the measure got famous. (Sources: Nexis archives, and the Times’ own “Times in Print” archive.) In the second paragraph we present, Seelye explains what Stupak-Pitts would ban. Do you understand what she has written? We’ll admit to being kerflubbled by the passage we highlight:

SEELYE (11/17/09): The commercial, to run beginning Tuesday on cable stations in Washington, is one of several actions by abortion-rights activists in recent days urging the Senate to exclude an anti-abortion measure approved by the House.

The House measure would ban insurance coverage for abortions for women receiving federal subsidies under a health-care overhaul and for those who are part of a government-run insurance plan. It could also have the effect of curtailing the availability of abortion coverage for others, even those paying for the insurance with their own money, because if one person in a plan was receiving a federal subsidy, no one else in that plan could receive abortion coverage.

We think we understand some of what Seelye has written:

Under Stupak-Pitts, a woman couldn’t buy an insurance plan which covered abortion if she was getting a federal subsidy to help pay the cost of the policy.

In addition, the reform plan’s “government-run insurance plan”—the so-called “public option”—wouldn’t offer abortion coverage. If a woman purchased the government-run/public plan, she wouldn’t be getting abortion coverage.

We think we understand that much. That seems to comport with what we’ve read about Stupak-Pitts in other locations. But after that, things get hazy. According to Seelye, Stupak-Pitts could also “have the effect of curtailing the availability of abortion coverage for others, even those paying for the insurance with their own money, because if one person in a plan was receiving a federal subsidy, no one else in that plan could receive abortion coverage.” We’ll be candid: We simply don’t know what that means. We aren’t even sure what kind of “plan” Seelye refers to here.

We don’t know what Seelye means. And we’ve tried to figure it out—oh lord, how we’ve tried! In part, we’ve tried to compare what Seelye writes to a full-blown attempt in the Washington Post to explain what Stupak-Pitts would do. This full-length report, by Alec MacGillis, appeared in Sunday’s Post (just click here). We are even a bit unclear about some of what MacGillis says. But his report does represent a formal attempt to explain the Stupak-Pitts amendment—the kind of effort the New York Times still hasn’t bothered to make in its hard-copy editions. (For a longer blog post by Seelye in the Times, just click this.)

It has now been ten days since Stupak-Pitts came center stage in our health care debate. Amazingly, the New York Times still hasn’t tried to explain it. For the record: In this morning’s hard-copy Times, Seelye’s report lies directly above an equally incoherent report by another scribe—an equally incoherent attempt to explain a separate health reform issue.

I’m with Stupid, tee-shirts say at the beach. We thought of those shirts as Seelye clued us on Stupak this morning. We’re all with Stupak, the analysts cried, ruminating on this murky debate.

We’ve been with Stupak for ten days now. The Times still hasn’t explained it.

Tomorrow: What MacGillis said.