Speculation about expectations!


Atop the Post's front page, Tumulty proves Krugman's point:
Yesterday, in his New York Times column, Paul Krugman discussed what the press corps should and shouldn't do in reporting Monday's debate.

We didn't agree with every word. In particular, we don't recommend the casual use of the term "lie" when journalists describe the misstatements of candidates, even the howling misstatements.

That said, we think Krugman made a lot of good points, if you're prepared to accept a large amount of informed speculation on his part. In that chunk of informed speculation, Krugman says it's highly likely that Candidate Trump will emit more howlers during Monday's debate than Candidate Clinton will.

If that happens, Krugman says, the press corps should let that basic fact guide its reporting and analyses. Their reporting and analyses should reflect the disproportion between the two candidates' misstatements.

According to Krugman, the press corps shouldn't pretend, or convey the impression, that the two candidates misspoke to an equal degree. And yet, Krugman says, journalists will feel pressured to do just that.

In this passage, we think Krugman makes good points, assuming you're prepared to accept his assumption about what is likely to happen:
KRUGMAN (9/23/16): ...I am not calling on the news media to take a side; I’m just calling on it to report what is actually happening, without regard for party. In fact, any reporting that doesn’t accurately reflect the huge honesty gap between the candidates amounts to misleading readers, giving them a distorted picture that favors the biggest liar.

Yet there are, of course, intense pressures on the news media to engage in that distortion. Point out a Trump lie and you will get some pretty amazing mail—and if we set aside the attacks on your race or ethnic group, accusations that you are a traitor, etc., most of it will declare that you are being a bad journalist because you don’t criticize both candidates equally.

One all-too-common response to such attacks involves abdicating responsibility for fact-checking entirely, and replacing it with theater criticism: Never mind whether what the candidate said is true or false, how did it play? How did he or she “come across”? What were the “optics”?

But theater criticism is the job of theater critics; news reporting should tell the public what really happened, not be devoted to speculation about how other people might react to what happened.
Never mind whether what the candidate said is true or false, how did it play? How did he or she “come across”?

In that passage, Krugman is describing an extremely common type of punditry. For a recent egregious example, consider Nia-Malika Henderson's analysis of a statement by Candidate Clinton in the recent Commander in Chief Forum. For our report, click here.

Krugman is right in that passage. Analysts should focus on whether a statement is true or false, not on speculations about how the statement "came across" to the nation's 130 million voters.

That said, journalists love to engage in such speculations. They even like to pre-speculate about such matters—to speculate in advance.

We thought of that passage from Krugman's column when we read today's Washington Post. Atop the front page of the hard-copy Post, a news report by Karen Tumulty sat beneath these headlines:
Why the first debate is the most hazardous
With expectations for Clinton higher, a stumble could hurt her more
Those headlines are egregious. In those headlines, the Washington Post tells its readers that expectations for Candidate Clinton will be higher next Monday night. For that reason, the Post tells readers, an error by Candidate Clinton on Monday may prove to be more harmful than an error by Candidate Trump.

That last claim is pure speculation. That said, this conceptual structure is very familiar from past presidential debates, most notably from the first debate between Candidates Bush and Gore in October 2000.

In the run-up to that crucial debate, the mainstream press corps immersed itself in the expectations game. For a reasonably detailed report about what they did, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/06.

The mainstream press corps loves to play this expectations game. Note the way Tumulty recalls that deeply consequential first debate between Bush and Gore as she starts her report:
TUMULTY (9/24/16): The first presidential debate of the general election is often the most treacherous—especially for the candidate who steps on stage with the presumed advantage.

Which is why Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the one in that position this time around, knows not to take anything for granted.

Monday’s 90-minute faceoff at Hofstra University on Long Island is projected to have the biggest audience ever for politics’ equivalent of the NBA playoffs, with estimates that upward of 100 million people will be watching.

“You can’t really win an election in a debate, but you can lose one,” said Brett O’Donnell, a communications consultant with long experience coaching GOP presidential candidates. “The first debate is the most important of all the debates, and it definitely has the most potential to harm.”

Examples of first-debate stumbles are many. And they have almost always hurt the candidate for whom the expectations were higher.

The biggest pitfall is a blunder that confirms the misgivings that voters may already be harboring.

A confused Ronald Reagan rambled in 1984, opening doubts about whether he had become too old to do the most important job in the world. In 2000, Al Gore sighed and exaggerated. George W. Bush casually draped himself over the lectern in 2004 and peevishly quibbled on minor points. Four years ago, an aloof Barack Obama seemed to phone it in.
Eventually, Tumulty explains her claim that expectations for Candidate Clinton are higher. She cites a recent survey in which 53 percent of voters said they expected Clinton to do a better job Monday night.

Only 43 percent said they expected Trump to do a better job. On that rather flimsy basis, Tumulty speculates that a blunder by Clinton may do more harm than a blunder by Trump.

This is pure speculation. To state the obvious, no one has made a blunder yet. More significantly, Tumulty presents no evidence in support of her basic thesis—her claim that voters react more strongly to a blunder by the candidate who entered the debate with "higher expectations."

She cites Campaign 2000 as an example supporting her thesis. What sorts of blunders did Candidate Gore supposedly make, leading to pushback from voters expecting more?

"In 2000, Al Gore sighed and exaggerated," Tumulty writes. In a slightly more rational world, work like this would get reporters and editors fired.

Did Candidate Gore "sigh and exaggerate" during that first debate? Did the sighing and the exaggerations cause him to be graded harshly by voters?

When it comes to the alleged sighing, we've often extended The C-Span Challenge. Go ahead! Watch that full debate on this C-Span videotape. Accept the challenge of trying to see or hear those troubling sighs, which later became so famous in the punditry of the mainstream press.

After puzzling yourself in that manner, recall this additional point. After that history-changing debate, five major news orgs surveyed viewers about which candidate "won."

In all five surveys, Candidate Gore was declared the winner, by a margin which averaged ten points. This happened after the voters were offended by the sighs you'll barely see or hear on that C-Span tape, according to Tumulty's thesis—after Gore was supposedly graded harshly, due to voters' high expectations before that crucial debate.

According to Krugman, journalists shouldn't speculate about the way candidates' statements "come across" to voters. Atop the front page in this morning's Post, Tumulty is pre-speculating about the way a blunder by Clinton may come across.

Tumulty is also declaring that Candidate Clinton is facing a higher bar next Monday. Before the first debate of Campaign 2000, mainstream pundits spent so much time driving down expectations for Candidate Bush that they were openly laughing about it in the days before that debate.

Three days before that crucial debate, Brit Hume laughingly described the way expectations had been lowered for Candidate Bush. According to Hume, the run-up to this first debate “helped to beat the expectations down, which are now in the case of George W. Bush so low that if he gets through it without drooling that he will have thought to have done well, or at least better than some expected.”

It's fairly clear that Hume was discussing the way expectations for Candidate Bush had been lowered by major pundits. A few other pundits mocked this journalistic procedure back then. But Tumulty was playing the same old game this morning.

In this game, pundits set different expectations for the candidates before the debate. They set the bar of expectations higher for one candidate, lower for the other. Often, this setting of expectations will affect the way the debate is judged, not by any actual voters, but by the press corps itself.

Making matters worse, Tumulty supports her thesis with a Standard Press Corps Story about that first Bush-Gore debate—a Standard Story which eliminates what the press corps did after five surveys all declared that, in the opinion of voters who watched the debate, Candidate Gore had "won."

If you couldn't observe what our press corps does, you'd think such conduct couldn't exist. On Monday, we'll extend these thoughts, noting the way the career liberal world has endlessly enabled and accepted this mainstream press conduct.

Yesterday, Krugman complained, making some very good points as he did. These complaints come very late in the game, a game of some twenty-plus years.

Another mission of national import!


Location remains undisclosed:
We're off on yet another mission of national import. It will take us to an undisclosed location in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

We don't expect to post again until some time this weekend. That precise time remains undisclosed.

On Monday, we'll start the third week of our four-week report, Where the Test Scores Are. Next week's reports will explore this theme: Where the Achievement Gaps Are.

Also next Monday: the first debate. We'll provide some historical background.

Kellyanne Conway massacres Todd!


Profiles in lack of competence:
Ever since the 1960s, Americans have heard repeated claims concerning press corps bias.

It's a perfectly sensible type of discussion. Individual journalists can exhibit, or can seem to exhibit, various types of bias. All too often, the mainstream press corps has exhibited apparent types of bias collectively, as a group.

We often hear complaints about bias. Much less frequently, we see discussions of press corps competence.

That said, major journalists often display a remarkable lack of basic intellectual / journalistic skill. For starters, consider the remarkable recent column by the New York Times' new public editor.

The column, by public editor Liz Spayd, appeared on Sunday, September 11. The column has been widely criticized but not, we think, quite enough.

Spayd's column dealt with complaints from readers. Those readers allege that the Times has been exhibiting "false balance" in its treatment of Candidates Clinton and Trump.

Whatever one thinks of that allegation, Spayd's analysis was remarkable. She offered a rather fuzzy definition of that term, then offered this remarkable dismissal of the complaints she has received from readers of the Times:
SPAYD (9/11/16): The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers—remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.
Good lord! In those highlighted sentences, Spayd dismisses all these complaints on the basis that the complaints were driven by partisan motives. She turns the complaints into a "doctrine"—a doctrine driven by partisan preference for Candidate Clinton.

She then suggests that the readers who have complained are completely irrational. If they think Trump's transgressions have been under-covered, that must mean that they don't want Clinton's emails mentioned at all! Spayd doesn't quote any example in which a reader actually said such a thing. She simply imagines this request, using it as a way to dismiss all "false balance" complaints.

When we read that column, we were amazed to think that the person who wrote it has risen so high in the press corps. Today, Spayd holds a high-profile post at the New York Times. In her previous two incarnations, she was managing editor of the Washington Post, then served as editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review!

How could a person with that resume possibly write a column like that? Let's put that a different way: How could a person with that level of skill possibly have attained such posts in the upper-end press corps?

In fairness, everyone can have a bad day. That said, Spayd's sneering column helps highlight the lack of intellectual skill commonly seen in the press corps.

Then too, there's the lack of journalistic skill. On Sunday's Meet the Press, Chuck Todd put that shortfall on startling display as he tried to interview Donald Trump's campaign chairman.

Todd attempted to interview Kellyanne Conway about Candidate Trump's five years as king of the birthers. Conway responded by chopping Todd to bits and leaving him for dead.

Conway's reaction to every question was perfectly predictable. She spent two or three seconds pivoting away from Todd's questions about Candidate Trump, then delivered critical orations concerning Candidate Clinton.

At some point, an interviewer has to tell such a guest to stop. He has to insist that she stop discussing the other guy and answer his actual questions about the person she represents.

Chuck Todd never did that. He kept letting Conway ignore the behavior of Candidate Trump while making accusations about Candidate Clinton, some of which were perhaps less than thoroughly accurate.

How bad was Todd's performance? In this, the very first exchange, we see one of the worst journalistic performances in the long, sometimes undistinguished history of the "Sunday shows:"
TODD (9/18/16): All right. Let me start with Friday's news first. How and when did Donald Trump conclude that the president was born in the United States?

CONWAY: You will have to ask him that. That's a personal decision. But we heard very clearly the three things he said on his own timeline in his own terms on Friday:

Number one, that associates of the Clinton campaign started this birtherism question in 2007. Mark Penn in a famous memo questioning President—Senator Obama's American roots.

The Iowa volunteer coordinator and, then, of course, as the McClatchy D.C. bureau chief at the time, now former, Chuck, has confirmed that Sid Blumenthal, big Clinton confidant, on the payroll for The Clinton Foundation, went and told him that president—oh, Senator Obama was born in Kenya. And in fact, they sent somebody to Africa to check it out. So this—

You know, Donald Trump was not running for president against Barack Obama in a very bruising, vicious primary in 2008. That was Hillary Clinton.

Number two, Donald Trump said he put this to rest. Hillary Clinton couldn't close it, get the information he did.

And number three, you heard him say that President Obama was born in this country, period. And he is moving on to all the things he talked about this week, tax reform, child care tax credits. We got the endorsement of the FOP, the Fraternal Order of Police, huge endorsement. They did not endorse anybody four years ago.

They endorsed the more popular, more likable Clinton in 1996. And so we're very happy with developments like that.

TODD: I guess— What I'm curious about, though, is who cares about the Clinton incident?

Donald Trump, for five years, perpetuated this. This has been arguably part of his political identity for the last five years. So what difference does it make whether Clinton does it? Why do two wrongs make a right in this case?

Let's talk about— Forget the Clinton incident for a minute. Why did he perpetuate it for five years after some associates from Hillary Clinton in your words?
Good God! Journalistically, that exchange is stunning. For the full transcript, click here.

As noted, Conway spent about two seconds on the rather obvious question she had been asked. She said she didn't know how the candidate she represents reached the new conclusion he had just announced.

In all honesty, this first Q-and-A should have ended right there. A skillful interviewer would have asked Conway why she can't answer a basic question about a major announcement her candidate had just delivered.

Todd displayed no such skill. Instead, Conway proceeded to deliver an oration about the other candidate. Todd was willing to listen, then seemed to affirm what she said.

Sadly, the situation was worse than we have so far described. Conway's oration about Candidate Clinton was perhaps a bit fact-challenged, was perhaps even grossly misleading.

Whatever one thinks of Penn's "famous memo," it was a private document—and it said nothing about Obama's place of birth. The Iowa volunteer fleetingly mentioned by Conway was fired by the Clinton campaign.

Did Blumenthal do what Conway charged? One person says he did; Blumenthal says he didn't. But somehow, out of this rather thin stew, Conway created an oration in which she avoided the question Todd had asked and delivered an attack on Candidate Clinton, even taking the time to cite her lack of likability.

Technically, Conway started with an attack on some of Clinton's "associates." This is the specific charge with which her oration began:

"Associates of the Clinton campaign started this birtherism question in 2007."

As she began, Conway claimed that associates of Clinton started the birther movement. That claim is shaky enough, especially given Conway's flimsy "examples." But by the end of her speech, she had abandoned her initial attempts at nuance:

"That was Clinton," Conway said. Apparently, Clinton did it herself!

Conway had avoided Todd's question on Candidate Trump. Instead, she had delivered a fact-challenged attack on Candidate Clinton.

Conway's specific claims were misleading, unfounded, perhaps false. At no point did she cite anything that Clinton herself had ever said or done.

Readers, so what? When he reappeared on the scene, Todd challenged nothing Conway had said. Instead, he seemed to vouch for the accuracy of her account. In the process, he imposed The Reign of Moral Equivalence:

"Who cares about the Clinton incident?" Todd instantly said, thereby seeming to vouch for Conway's various statements. Then he made his most remarkable statement:
TODD: Donald Trump, for five years, perpetuated this. This has been arguably part of his political identity for the last five years. So what difference does it make whether Clinton does it? Why do two wrongs make a right in this case?
There you see the moderator creating The Realm of False Balance. Clinton did it, as did Trump! "Why do two wrongs make a right?" the pistol-whipped schoolboy now memorably said.

Conway continued schooling Todd throughout their interview. You see, Conway is highly skilled at what she does. Todd displayed almost no journalistic skill at all.

It's pretty much as we've always said. The more these TV performers get paid, the less skill you're likely to see them display. When people are being paid millions of dollars to maintain ratings and execute various corporate strategies, journalistic incompetence has been built into the system.

Career liberal journalists will perhaps look past Todd's performance. We've seen few of them mention this remarkable session. We're going to take a cynical guess:

Some of them may want to appear on Meet the Press! Such appearances are good for careers. Criticism of Todd is not.