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19 January 2000

Our current howler (part II): Wrong from the start

Synopsis: We human beings don’t reason real well. But don’t trust us—look in the papers.

The Simple Solution
Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times Magazine 1/9/00

Editorial, The New Republic, 1/24/00

McCain Urged F.C.C. Action On Issue Involving Supporter
Stephen Labaton, The New York Times, 1/6/00

McCain Defends FCC Letter
Susan Glasser and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 1/6/00

A Misstep by Mr. McCain
Editorial, The Washington Post, 1/7/00

How poorly do we humans reason? It's a transparent part of our natural history; the fact is, we reason quite poorly. From Socrates, at the dawn of the west, to Wittgenstein, in the century just passed, the fact that our hardy band doesn't reason real well has been rather frequently noted. Socrates looked for ways to keep "the weaker argument from defeating the stronger;" Wittgenstein talked about the "battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." But it's been commonly noticed throughout western history: we humans are easily led astray.

But at a time of great technological progress, it's easy to forget our logical shortfall. And the celebrity press corps blathers away as if it hasn't heard of this ongoing mess. But don't believe us when we tell you this; read the start of Sullivan's article. He opens with a personal note on why he finds the flat tax attractive:

SULLIVAN: I suppose I first developed a fondness for the flat tax when Jerry Brown and Steve Forbes supported it. It had that energizing right-left whiplash I've rarely been able to resist...

In current political writing, this cheeky tone almost always signals that chaos is lurking nearby. Sure enough, the rest of Sullivan's opening paragraph is drenched in conceptual confusion:

SULLIVAN (continuing directly): But these days, not only the fringes of political life support it. This year, every Republican candidate but one—Alan Keyes-supports a version of flatness and even the cautious George W. backs simpler, lower rates. One of Al Gore's core strengths against Bill Bradley is that he is less likely to raise taxes than his more liberal rival. Compared with 25 years ago, when pre-Reagan tax rates clobbered anyone even faintly successful, or even 16 years ago, when Walter Mondale quixotically campaigned for a fiscal hike, the tax climate may not be flat but it's flatter.

It's quite clear from this passage that Sullivan identifies the "flat tax" with lowered taxation. But a "flat tax" is a single-rate tax, without deductions, where "everyone is treated the same," Sullivan says. Nothing about this tells us where the rate of taxation will be set. Sullivan himself doesn't say in this article where he would set his single rate, or whether he would intend for his "flat" tax to bring in less revenue than the current tax code. A "flat tax" can be designed to lower federal revenues, but this goal is no way implied by the concept. Meanwhile, is Gore less likely to raise taxes than Bradley? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't really know, but even if he is so inclined, that doesn't make his policies "flatter." We know of nothing about Gore's proposals is especially "flat." Meanwhile, Bradley's principal Senate achievement was the 1986 tax code reform, which lowered top rates and dropped deductions—which did make the tax code more "flat." Bush does in fact propose lowering revenue, but there is nothing about his plan that is "flat;" he would lower the top current rate, but he wants to lower the bottom rate too, so the spread of tax rates in his code would be no more narrow than at present. This article—starting with paragraph one—is simply riddled with conceptual confusion, and yet it appears in one of our most prestigious publications. The cheeky tone—matched with the logical errors—is typical of our current press culture, in which vibrant personality is always allowed to stand in for technical rigor.

What is most striking about this piece? The fact that Sullivan is smart. Again, this is the type of work that is often done by our smart writers, in our most admired publications. How can THE HOWLER's vision be accurate? How can our discourse be so bad? In part, it's because we humans reason very poorly—although to all appearances it has quite a while since the celebrity press corps considered that fact, or attempted to take the simplest measures to guard against the chaos we're heir to.

But there is another slight shortfall in human functioning first noticed by the ancients. We human beings have another small problem—on occasion, we're not all that honest. Socrates said that sophists would use their skills to make weaker arguments defeat the stronger—and our analysts see the occasional sign that the syndrome still lingers today. In fact, a recent moment on the inventive show Hardball brought our scholars out of their chairs. They didn't know whether to laugh or to cry as they saw ancient patterns re-enacted.


Tomorrow: Sometimes, pundits aren't all that honest. We look in on a tabloid talker.

The power to spin: Our analysts came out of their chairs last night as they perused the current TNR "Notebook." This time they were cheering the magazine on, for its comments on recent McCain coverage:

THE NEW REPUBLIC: By now, most sensible commentators realize that the "scandal" of John McCain's letter asking the Federal Communications Commission to make a decision (not decide a certain way, mind you, simply make a decision) about one of his contributors is no scandal at all. Members of Congress do worse every day. So why did the New York Times play it on page one, dignifying it for other papers and the TV networks? We don't know, but it's in character...

"Notebook" goes on to claim that the Times' McCain coverage has been "relentlessly hostile."

We don't really agree with that last assessment, but we think that "Notebook" understates the problems with the FCC coverage. TNR notes that McCain didn't ask the FCC to "decide a certain way." In our view, that's putting it mildly. McCain's December 10 letter was five paragraphs long. Here are his final two paragraphs:

MCCAIN TO FCC (12/10):
The sole purpose of this letter is to secure final action on a matter that has now been pending for over two years. I emphasize that my purpose is not to suggest in any way how you should vote—merely that you should vote. In order to assure that no oral or ex patre communications on the merits of these applications take place, I will not entertain any oral responses of any kind to this letter.

This letter is not written to obtain favorable disposition of any matter on behalf of any party to any proceeding before the commission. Please treat this letter in compliance with all applicable substantive and procedural rules.

McCain explicitly "emphasized" that he wasn't recommending a particular outcome. But here's how the Times paraphrased McCain, early on in its page-one story:

LABATON: The letters did not tell the commissioners how to vote on the license transfers, which had been in a regulatory abyss for more than two years as community groups fought over the matter and enlisted a variety of lawmakers to lobby on their behalf. Nonetheless, the letters prompted an unusual response from the chairman of the F.C.C., suggesting that they were inappropriate. And other officials said the tone of the letters made it clear to them that Mr. McCain wanted the deal approved, even if he did not say so explicitly.

We think this paragraph offers a striking account of McCain's FCC letter. It would have been perfectly easy, in Labaton's first sentence, to quote what McCain really said. Labaton could have said this:

LABATON REWRITE: In his December 10 letter, McCain "emphasized" that "my purpose is not to suggest in any way how [the FCC] should vote" on the license transfers, which had been in a regulatory abyss for more than two years.

Times readers would have seen McCain's actual words; instead, they got a watered-down paraphrase. Meanwhile, Labaton gives substantial space to an anonymous claim that "the tone" of McCain's letter "made it clear" that he did in fact want the deal approved. We think that claim about "tone" is hard to defend; McCain says exactly the opposite. But Labaton's reader has no way to know that; he hasn't been shown what McCain really said.

The New York Times—on an inside page—did print the full text of McCain's letter. An assiduous reader could go inside and see what McCain really said. But in Labaton's page-one account, he chooses not to quote McCain, substituting his own account, and that of an FCC spinner.

But Labaton wasn't the only one who chose not to quote the solon. Here's how the Post's Glasser and Balz explained what McCain had said:

GLASSER AND BALZ: His letter, McCain said, carefully steered clear of urging approval of the Paxson deal, and his campaign later said it had found about 20 similar McCain requests from the past few years demanding faster action by the FCC on various regulatory matters.

His letter "steered clear of urging approval?" That would have been an accurate account of the letter's first three paragraphs. But in the next two paragraphs, McCain went further, explicitly "emphasizing" that he wasn't urging approval or rejection. Once again, we call for Rewrite:

GLASSER/BALZ REWRITE: In McCain's letter, he explicitly "emphasized" that he "did not suggest in any way how [the FCC] should vote."

That would have been a more accurate account than the paraphrase which the Post published. By the way, the Post did not reprint McCain's letter. The Balz/Glasser paraphrase is the reader's only way to know what McCain really said.

A final dreary note on this matter—here is the opening of a lead editorial the Post wrote on this subject:

THE WASHINGTON POST: Sen. John McCain badly overstepped the rules, or what ought to be the rules, in intervening with the Federal Communications Commission in a licensing case in which a major campaign contributor had a multimillion-dollar interest. It was plain, despite the boiler plate disclaimers he put in his letters, that he was writing on behalf of a particular outcome.

It's hard to defend this presentation. In those "boiler plate disclaimers," McCain had explicitly "emphasized" to the FCC that he wasn't "writing on behalf of a particular outcome." But Post readers had no way to know that. The paper had never quoted McCain, instead telling readers a story it liked.

We see this endlessly from the press corps; scribes choose to paraphrase rather than quote, even when the language in question is quite short and could be easily quoted. When public figures are being accused of wrong-doing, they are owed the courtesy of quotation. None of these three accounts quoted McCain—and all three accounts, for whatever reason, watered down what McCain really said.