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Daily Howler: The New York Times seems out of shape when it tries to debunk a false tale
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WEAK AND UNPRACTICED! The New York Times seems out of shape when it tries to debunk a false tale: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2008

The joy of interconnection: As we said yesterday:

THE DAILY HOWLER (12/9/08): [W]e favor appointing “caretakers” to vacant senate posts, then letting real candidates battle it out in future special elections.

We said that before the Blagojevich story produced such joy on cable.

And yes, it was joy all over cable last night, as many providers clowned and played about the amusing story. We thought Rachel Maddow was the worst we saw, but many others engaged in the evening’s tomfoolery. Is there a “presumption of innocence” in our culture? A healthy respect for the word “allegation?” A healthy skepticism toward the possibility that prosecutors—even well-intentioned prosecutors—can err, overreach, self-promote, over-dramatize? Not in the culture we looked at last night! Joy returned to cable last night, as pundits got to clown and play—and assume that every word they’d been told was wonderfully, perfectly accurate. Good God! Maddow even sat silent when Michael Isikoff blathered in this ludicrous fashion, in response to her very first question:

MADDOW: Is there a risk that this scandal could stick to the president-elect? Is there any connection here other than proximity?

ISIKOFF: Well, there—I mean, look, there’s no allegations of wrongdoing against Obama or any Obama people here. But this has to be extremely uncomfortable for Obama and will become very uncomfortable for the Obama Justice Department come January. There are a web of interconnections between the Blagojevich’s world and Obama’s world.

The Senate candidate who Blagojevich was talking about naming if he would get the money he wanted was Valerie Jarrett, a very close Obama adviser. One name that is prominent in that criminal complaint and will become more prominent in coming months is Tony Rezko; he’s identified as Blagojevich’s chief fund-raiser in the criminal complaint. He also happened to have been Barack Obama’s chief fund-raiser for many years. And, of course, they bought that—they were in that property deal together in South Chicago.

Rahm Emanuel is the—who is Obama’s chief of staff—filled Blagojevich’s congressional seat when he became governor of Illinois.

So, you have this web of interconnections...

For the record, that was exceptionally reckless talk by Isikoff, especially the parts about Jarrett and Emmanuel. But Maddow just sat there and took it. After all, she was already chirpingly upset about this bit of conduct:

MADDOW: Today, while seated at a table with the past and future vice presidents, President-elect Obama sounded sadly, suddenly familiar.

OBAMA (videotape): As this is an ongoing investigation involving the governor, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time.

MADDOW: You know, that’s the most Bush administration phrase ever, isn’t it? I mean, even if it’s true, did he have to say it exactly like that?

Well yes, he did have to “say it like that,” or he would have sounded like all the clowns holding forth on cable last night. And as usual, Maddow had to show the world how amusing and adorable she is. (Did you ever dream that MSNBC could produce a pro-Democratic intellectual mess to match the anti-Democratic mess it staged for all those years?) Maddow was grinning and clowning for her fans at that point—but a few moments later, she rolled and died when Isikoff made that remarkable statement about those “interconnections.” Why, Emmanuel succeeded Blagojevich in the Congress! As we’ve all seen in the past, that’s the way a chump like Isikoff can create a world of “interconnections.” And Maddow took it like a tool. After all, Mikey’s part of the team!

For our money, Fitzgerald and his overheated aides ought to get over themselves just a tad. It isn’t part of their job description to imagine what Lincoln has done in his grave, or to thunder about where Illinois ranks among the fifty worst states. But the mess last night on cable TV was a real mess to behold. The children were wonderfully happy again. They’d been handed a framework for their jokes and their winks—for their garbage on “interconnections.”

The word “alleged” was AWOL last night. So was anything that even resembled normal press corps decorum. You live in a world of jokes and games—of the “interconnections” that come steaming up from those who have killed you before. These games were long played against Clinton, then Gore. Will Maddow be content with her self-adoring jokes as they start getting played once again?

Weak and unpracticed: One thing didn’t magically change with Barack Obama’s election: Despite claims that the nation was perhaps moving left, it has remained remarkably easy for groups from the right to invent bogus “facts” and use them to drive our nation’s debates.

Bogus, absurd, inane or false claims relentlessly drove our public debates during the Clinton/Gore/Bush/Clinton era. (Al Gore said he invented the Internet! The US has the best health care in the world!) Well uh-oh! One more such “fact” took center stage soon after Obama’s big win.

On page one of today’s New York Times, we get an idea why it’s so easy for such “facts” to gain prominence. Unfortunately, we get schooled on this problem as we watch the hapless Times attempt to rebut this fake “fact.” Alas! As the Times attempts to shoot down a false “fact,” we see the remarkable lack of skill and determination our press elites bring to such efforts.

To its credit, the Times seems to be trying to shoot down this fake “fact.” But that’s where the problem begins.

The front-page report was penned by David Leonhardt—and Leonhardt chose a worthy target. Indeed, the bogus “fact” the scribe confronts has been widely driven within the press corps during the current debate about the Big Three’s problems. If you stick with Leonhardt long enough, he finally gives you a gruesome example of the press corps’ utter incompetence. In paragraph 15 (out of 25), Leonhardt records CNN’s Wolf Blitzer fronting a groaning misstatement:

LEONHARDT (12/10/08): The Big Three built up a huge pool of retirees long before Honda and Toyota opened plants in this country. You’d never know this by looking at the graphic behind Wolf Blitzer on CNN last week, contrasting the “$73/hour” pay of Detroit’s workers with the “up to $48/hour” pay of workers at the Japanese companies.

Jesus, that’s awful! As Leonhardt semi-explains in his piece, that “$73/hour versus $48/hour” is simply wrong—it’s bogus, fake, false, inaccurate. And yet, the comparison has been all over the press corps, driving the claim that greedy unions and overpaid workers are the source of the Big Three’s woes.

At Media Matters, you can see the graphic to which Leonhardt refers, with Blitzer propped on a stool before it (just click here). Meanwhile, the claim this graphic seems to make is, simply put, simply wrong. But so what? Relentlessly, citizens have heard variants of this claim: Unionized Big Three workers make a gaudy $73 per hour, while their non-unionized counterparts at Japanese-owned US car plants make something like $48. That claim is bogus, fake, false—flatly wrong. But it has been widely pimped since Obama’s election, like so many other false claims in the decades which have slipped past.

Why is it so easy to produce—and prosper from—such false claims? Partly because of the lack of skill possessed by your upper-end press corps! This brings us back to Leonhardt’s piece—and to the headlines and graphics his editors have haplessly used to adorn it.

Let’s be fair: If you read Leonhardt’s piece with care, you can derive the basic facts. According to Leonhardt, Big Three workers receive something like $55 per hour in salary and benefits, compared to something like $45 per hour for their non-unionized counterparts in Japanese-owned American plants. Unfortunately, Leonhardt’s presentation of this basic fact comes in the midst of a much longer, much more complex presentation. But just for the record, here it is—Leonhardt’s paragraph 13, out of 25 total:

LEONHARDT (12/10/08): Add the two together, and you get the true hourly compensation of Detroit’s unionized work force: roughly $55 an hour. It’s a little more than twice as much as the typical American worker makes, benefits included. The more relevant comparison, though, is probably to Honda’s or Toyota’s (nonunionized) workers. They make in the neighborhood of $45 an hour, and most of the gap stems from their less generous benefits.

After making a largely irrelevant comparison, Leonhardt finally make the one he calls “more relevant.” Counting wages and benefits, Detroit’s unionized workers make roughly $55 per hour, he says. Their non-unionized counterparts at Toyota and Honda make roughly $45.

So there you see the basic facts, midway through a long report. Those are the facts which give the lie to Blitzer’s inexcusable groaner. So yes—if you read Leonhardt’s piece with care, you’ll finally get an accurate comparison. And you’ll be told that some news sources (Blitzer is the lone example) have been making a bogus presentation—one which massively overstates the actual “auto pay gap.”

But what if you don’t read the article carefully? What if you glance at the headlines and the graphics? What if you skim what Leonhardt has said, as many readers may do? Readers like that may be misled by Leonhardt’s work, and by that of his editors. The headlines are bad; the graphic is gruesome; and Leonhardt has vastly down-played his lead. The public is being misinformed once again! But the New York Times doesn’t seem up to the task addressing this long-standing problem.

Start with the most gruesome part of this piece—the graphic which appears on page A23. (Click here, then click on “Multimedia.”) You have to be a hopeless incompetent to illustrate Leonhardt’s piece with a graphic like that. In theory, Leonhardt is trying to debunk the claim that Ford workers are paid much more than their Japanese counterparts. But that’s precisely the notion a reader will get from a glance at this graphic! If you read the full text of the graphic with care, you may see Leonhardt’s point reinforced. But duh! Many readers have already heard, incorrectly, that Ford’s workers are paid much more than Toyota’s. Such readers will likely glance at that graphic and have this false notion reinforced.

Good God! The real comparison is 55/45, Leonhardt finally says. But in the graphic, it’s 71-49! Only in the New York Times does such hapless conduct occur.

The graphic is therefore amazingly bad—but the front-page headlines are quite bad too. What is the basic theme of this piece? The public has been handed some misinformation! But would you have grasped that key idea from reading the front-page headlines?

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINES (12/10/08):
$73 an Hour:
Adding It Up

Auto Pay Gap Less
Than It May Seem

Uh-oh! Readers who have already heard the bogus “$73 an hour” statistic may actually find it reinforced by that larger, principal headline; they may think that Leonhardt is simply “adding up” where that high figure comes from. (For the record, many readers will look at these headlines without ever reading the story.) Meanwhile, the secondary headline is hopelessly weak; the pay gap isn’t “less than it may seem,” it’s less than what many big news orgs have said. If an editor wanted to capture the actual story, that headline should say something much more direct. An editor who cared about assaults on our discourse might have offered headlines like this:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINES, REVISED:
A Bogus Claim
About Big 3 Workers

News Outlets Misstate
Size of Auto Pay Gap

If an editor was disturbed by the specter of fake/bogus claims, he would get off his fat, frightened keister and headline this problem for readers.

The problems with the headlines and the graphic can be laid at the feet of Times editors. In fairness, though, we’d have to say that Leonhardt himself seems a bit reluctant to tell the key story. It’s true: If you carefully read his full piece, you may come to see that a fake, bogus claim has been driving the discourse. But in the manner decreed by the gods, Leonhardt refuses to drive this central point, in which one side is right and the other side wrong. Even as he opens his piece, he forces an “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” framework onto his presentation. These are his opening paragraphs:

LEONHARDT: Seventy-three dollars an hour.

That figure—repeated on television and in newspapers as the average pay of a Big Three autoworker—has become a big symbol in the fight over what should happen to Detroit. To critics, it is a neat encapsulation of everything that’s wrong with bloated car companies and their entitled workers.

To the Big Three’s defenders, meanwhile, the number has become proof positive that autoworkers are being unfairly blamed for Detroit’s decline. “We’ve heard this garbage about 73 bucks an hour,” Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said last week. “It’s a total lie. I think some people have perpetrated that deliberately, in a calculated way, to mislead the American people about what we’re doing here.”

That statistic is bogus, as we’ll eventually see. But in paragraph two, the bogus statistic becomes “a neat encapsulation of everything that’s wrong with bloated car companies and their entitled workers”—in the minds of the Big Three’s critics, who seem to be working in perfect good faith! We’re back in a familiar land—the land where reporters pretend that each side is making an equally sincere, valid point. Here’s how Leonhardt continues as he starts to seek out “the reality:”

LEONHARDT (continuing directly): So what is the reality behind the number? Detroit’s defenders are right that the number is basically wrong. Big Three workers aren’t making anything close to $73 an hour (which would translate to about $150,000 a year).

But the defenders are not right to suggest, as many have, that Detroit has solved its wage problem. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler workers make significantly more than their counterparts at Toyota, Honda and Nissan plants in this country. Last year’s concessions by the United Automobile Workers, which mostly apply to new workers, will not change that anytime soon.

And yet the main problem facing Detroit, overwhelmingly, is not the pay gap. That’s unfortunate because fixing the pay gap would be fairly straightforward.

The real problem is that many people don’t want to buy the cars that Detroit makes. Fixing this problem won’t be nearly so easy.

The success of any bailout is probably going to come down to Washington’s willingness to acknowledge as much.

As always, both sides have to have valid points. Yes, the number “is basically wrong.” But the critics have to have good points too.

The various claims which Leonhardt makes in that passage may well be accurate. But by now, he has thrown so many claims into the stew that his basic claim is obscured. Do his readers deserve to be told that the $73-per-hour statistic is deeply bogus? They’ll have to fight their way to page A23 to study the real comparison. Meanwhile, here’s how Leonhardt frames the debate when the rubber finally hits the road. This is the soul of your modern press corps, of scribes with tails between legs:

LEONHARDT (continuing directly): Let’s start with the numbers. The $73-an-hour figure comes from the car companies themselves. As part of their public relations strategy during labor negotiations, the companies put out various charts and reports explaining what they paid their workers. Wall Street analysts have done similar calculations.

The calculations show, accurately enough, that for every hour a unionized worker puts in, one of the Big Three really does spend about $73 on compensation. So the number isn’t made up. But it is the combination of three very different categories.

Sorry—that’s awful. As Leonhardt himself will eventually show, that number has been relentlessly used to misinform people about this problem. But before he dares tell readers that, he seems to feel that he must vouch for the good faith of the people who invented the number. “The number isn’t made up,” he says—and he seems to vouch for “the calculations” which produced it. It’s like pulling teeth to get these guys to give the public the basic fact: You’re being played for fools again. The press has been feeding you bull-roar.

Does the public ever deserve to be told that they’re being misinformed? Leonhardt seems reluctant to tell them—and his editors muck matters up worse. And yet, this is the type of work we get on the rare occasion when the upper-end press corps actually tries to correct a false factual claim. This sad effort represents the best an org like the New York Times can produce.

The public has been fed a string of bogus claims over the course of the past many years. Why does the Times seem reluctant to say so? Why does the newspaper seem so unskilled at so basic a task? Why does the Times clutter up such a piece with so many extraneous points? Why does it feel it has to vouch for data which have been used to misinform us?

The public has long been deceived by false claims—and yet the Times seems weak and unpracticed when it tries debunking such tales. Just a thought: Could that be because so many false claims have come from the Times itself?