OUR ANNUAL FOOTBALL DIVERSION: We’re fascinated by the role of conventional wisdom (“narrative”) in modern journalism. This brings us to our annual assessment of the strength of the Southeastern Conference.
Is the SEC the best football conference? Every journalist knows it is; this even includes Charlie Pierce, with whom we’ve generously tried to work on this subject. But is this bit of conventional wisdom demonstrated on the gridiron? Again this year, we’d have to say “no.” Idiosyncratically, we base our judgment on what has happened when SEC teams played actual games against teams from the other five “power conferences.”
This year, SEC teams have played thirteen games against teams from these five other circuits. Nine of these games were SEC home games. In seven of these games, the SEC team boasts a better conference record than its opponent. (Example: Auburn, 5-3 in the SEC, defeated Kansas State, 3-5 in the Big 12.) In one other game, the two teams have equal conference records. (Alabama, 4-4 in the SEC, lost to Florida State, 4-4 in the ACC.)
The result of these 13 games? The SEC went 6-7. Did we mention the fact that nine of these games were SEC home games?
Does this make the SEC a below-average conference? No, it doesn’t—the N is much too low. But it’s striking to see the press corps’ SEC triumphalism persist in the face of such data. Unless you’ve watched the way the political press corps evaluates its favored narratives, of course.
In today's New York Times, Pete Thamel begins to shed the predictable tears about the possibility that the SEC won’t have a team in this year’s title game. Meanwhile, the new AP poll reflects traditional SEC favoritism. The best two-loss teams are Georgia and LSU. The best three-loss teams are Florida and Tennessee. The best four-loss teams are Auburn and Arkansas. The best five-loss team is Kentucky. In every case, the SEC team appears at the top of its category. These judgments persist despite the SEC’s mediocre performance on the field of battle.
Last Monday, though, USA Today took the cake. “SEC football is the best college gridiron has to offer,” the confident headline proclaimed. And how did Jack Carey figure that out? (He was assessing the past ten years.) Carey says that USA Today took “a quantitative look at some comparative factors for the six league...seven elements we think give a picture of a well-rounded football league.” But uh-oh! Almost all seven elements involve subjective judgment (one element seems to be a poll of readers) or statistical bungling (the conferences have different numbers of teams, which wasn’t factored in where relevant). And predictably, USA Today skipped past the obvious point of comparison; the paper didn’t compute won-loss records in games between teams from the six conferences. To anyone else, that would have been the place to start. But then, this assessment was done by big journalists. (We don’t know what those ten-year, won-loss records would turn out to be.)
At any rate, the mightiest conference has gone 6-7 this year—despite playing nine of those games at home. But so what? Predictably, tears are falling as journalists picture a title game without this mightiest circuit. Yep! Narrative plays a powerful role in our lives—especially inside the press corps.
LOVE AFFAIR: Modern pundits simply love the phrase “liberal media bias.” How much do such pundit adore the phrase? Consider the following “Media Morsel,” offered today by the Post’s Howard Kurtz. For Kurtz, “media bias” is in the air when someone who isn’t part of the media names her choice for president:
How much do modern mainstream pundits love the cry of “liberal media bias?” In this item, a college professor endorses a candidate. Without explanation, Kurtz utters the cry.
KURTZ (11/26/07): In a move that has revived charges of liberal media bias, former ABC anchor Carole Simpson has endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Simpson, now a journalism instructor at Emerson College, offered her resignation the day after announcing her support at an event featuring the New York senator, but it was turned down.
"I know I made a mistake," Simpson told the Boston Globe, adding: "But I'd really like to see her win. After being a reporter for so many years, where you wish you could do more than you can, it would be nice to make a difference."
In the Boston Globe report which Kurtz cites, we find the source of today’s battle-cry. The Media Research Center’s hapless Brent Bozell spoke out in the Globe report: Simpson’s endorsement proves she was a liberal all along, even while at ABC, Bozell says. Of course, Brit Hume was a conservative all along, even while at ABC. But such attempts at fairness-and-balance don’t seem to have entered Bozell’s brain. Nor does the Globe provide his thoughts about the relevant question: Did Simpson display liberal bias in her actual reporting? Back when she was actually part of the media, that is?
No, that Globe report won’t win any prizes—but Kurtz’s “Morsel” is perfectly foolish. But then, we think you know the rules of this game. Brent Bozell expressed his great view—and Howard Kurtz hurried to pander.
At any rate, the sheer absurdity of Kurtz’s item helps outline a great modern love affair. Pundits adore the claim “liberal bias.” As Kurtz helps us see, they thrill every time they’re given the chance to breathe the name of their great beloved.
EXCEPTIONALLY BAD: But then, whatever happened to the more intelligent Howard Kurtz, the one who performed a good deal of decent work in the first year of Campaign 2000, for instance? (We refer to the year 1999.) Over the weekend, we read Reality Show, Kurtz’s gruesome new book about the network news anchors, and we marveled throughout at the way Kurtz fawns to NBC’s Brian Williams. (And to CBS’s Bob Schieffer. And, to a lesser extent, to ABC’s Charlie Gibson.) Kurtz’s book is so childish, so deeply awful that it does deserve to be read—so you can see how low the modern press corps will stoop as it panders and fawns to its icons. This book is so comically awful that it deserves a more careful treatment than we could give it today. (Another day will come.) But after 434 pages of Kurtz’s silly fawning, we were stunned at his decline—and we were stunned to reread the pandering review the book received, in Kurtz’s own Post, from the fawning Marvin Kalb (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/24/07).
All together, now: Everyone pander!
This book is just exceptionally bad. It’s a long and laughable infomercial for the fine, wise, caring and thoughtful men who run your plutocrat press corps. (The women come off a good deal worse—more specifically, Couric and Vargas.) In particular, Kurtz recites Williams’ familiar self-glorying jive as if he were the gentleman’s agent. (I’m just an Average Joe who loves Nascar!) This book is just exceptionally bad. For that reason, we strongly recommend it.