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An Open Letter to Fox News Viewers/Readers

November 7, 2012 4 comments

Hello readers,

This is not intended to be a post preaching to the choir. If you are here to laugh at Fox News, then I don’t need you to keep reading. There are many people who I know and love that actually do get the bulk of their news from watching Fox News, reading their website, reading Breitbart.com, listening to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Neal Boortz, and other similar methods (but no differing). If this sounds like you, please keep reading. I’d like to talk to you. This is not about the content of the election or the issues espoused by different candidates, but about the information you received. Most of you seem relatively surprised with the results of Tuesday’s election. Many of you professed a great deal of confidence in Governor Romney’s chances on Tuesday night. This troubles me greatly, and I think it opens up an opportunity to understand just how cut off from reality reaffirming media bubbles can become.

You see, this election was not much of a surprise. In fact, according to those who paid a great deal of attention to what was going on in state polls and early voting, the election went almost exactly as expected. Take this quote from The New Yorker’s John Cassidy Tuesday morning:

The vast majority of pundits, academics, and forecasters agree that Obama will win. Indeed, there is a broad consensus about his likely margin of victory in the electoral college: 303 to 235. In addition to myself, a number of prognosticators have settled on these figures. They include the Democratic strategist Joe Trippi; the Slate blogger Matt Yglesias; the Huffpo’s Pollster tracking model; the Web site PredictWise, the consulting firm CabPolitical. Most other forecasts are grouped around the 303-235 projection. Early Tuesday morning, Nate Silver’s 538 model was predicting Obama 315, Romney 223; Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium had it at Obama 309, Romney 229. Larry Sabato and his colleagues at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics were predicting that Obama would do slightly less well but still win. Their figures for the electoral college: Obama 290, Romney 248.

(the whole article is worth a read)

I’ll note that Sam Wang and Nate Silver’s projections stem from expected value models, which are averages of different possible outcomes, not state-by-state projections added up. Looking state-by-state, Nate Silver got everything correct right down to Florida being too close to call with a slight Obama lean. What you see here is a consensus prediction around the exact outcome that occurred. By nearly every detailed, analytical prediction, the only source of disagreement was generally around Virginia and Florida’s results. In addition to human projections, betting sites and market forecasts such as Betfair and Intrade gave Obama strong odds as the favorite.

This information is not meant as a means of gloating. This is just some evidence that the information available regarding this race led to a very easily-predicted outcome. Even as a novice non-pollster, I read enough to feel very confident in the outcome of the election. When I posted a reactionary blog post at 11:23 Tuesday night–just eight minutes after the earliest call of the race (NBC followed shortly after by Fox News)–it wasn’t because I am a very fast typist, and it wasn’t because I wrote a reaction post for either result. It was because I was so sure of the outcome that I planned ahead for it, accused by some of my more worrisome or superstitious friends as possibly jinxing the whole thing.

The reason I want to be clear that this outcome was predictable is that you should by now be wondering why you didn’t see this coming. Why were you fairly sure that Romney would emerge victorious? I think we know the answer. The answer is that Sean Hannity, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Dick Morris, and Ben Shapiro told you that Romney was heading for a win–some said a landslide. Unskewedpolls.com explained that the polls (which proved right) were inherently biased and presented its own, very different results (which proved wrong). Any prognosticator or pundit who projected an Obama win–or even a toss-up–on the airwaves that you watched or listened to or in the articles you read were instantly countered with hard theories about why those predictions would prove incorrect. Every poll they chose to report was an optimistic, right-leaning poll while ignoring that it was often a statistical outlier. You were inundated with information about this election that pointed to a Romney win–and maybe even a big one.

And that brings us here. In the information age, you can pick and choose where you get your information. There is more knowledge and data available than ever before. The sources that you have chosen were wrong. They weren’t even close. Many, many other sources got this right. The correct sources were ignored or discredited in your world. This leaves me wondering: is there any such thing as information accountability? Is there a reward for getting things right? A punishment for getting things wrong?

The truth is that the election is not the only issue in which this happens. However, the election provides the clearest opportunity to point out the discrepancy between what you’re being told and what is actually happening. This discrepancy is real. This is not an attack from the “lame stream media.” If you found yourself caught by surprise–both by the Obama victory and by the relatively easy margin of the electoral victory–then you now have the evidence right in front of your face. If I found out that all of the news I had been receiving for the past several weeks was completely tainted by an ideological desire to promote a false version of reality rather than reporting the information that was readily available about the true situation, I would cease to use that source. I’m left wondering, will you?

Gingrich has already admitted that “the whole group of us” got it wrong. Was it a coincidence? I leave you with this admission from Byron Allen of WPA Opinion Research, and a final thought:

As a researcher, I’m sad to admit that I let my hopes overtake the data.  The facts, based on well-conducted survey research, always pointed to an Obama win.  But many Republicans, me included, tried to find a way to argue that the data didn’t mean what it said on its face and that Romney would still win.

(emphasis added)

The election coverage by the right-wing media outlets was deliberately misleading and was proven incorrect. In a world with information at your fingertips, don’t make the same mistake again. Look for different sources. Yours are failing you.

Sincerely,

Max

On News Media

April 14, 2012 Leave a comment

I haven’t written anything in about a week, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. It’s not that I haven’t had time or that I’ve been distracted.  It’s simply that every time I sit down to write, be it about the Trayvon Martin case, the “war on women” or even the monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it turned into a discussion of how the media was treating each story.  And when I tried to write about the news media, it turned out  that I dislike so many aspects of it that I had trouble organizing/keeping brief my thoughts. And while I have many other interests and points of view that I would like to share, I’ve been preoccupied with trying to figure out how to even start my discussion of the media without rambling down a long road of circumstantial critiques.

So I’ll start with this: if you as a reader, viewer or listener find that the source from which you get your news always agrees with you, that source is biased. I’m sorry to break it to you, but it’s not that you’re just SO smart. It’s not that your points of view are all just SO correct. It’s that your news source is biased.

It seems that most news media outlets have done away with the old adage of reporting facts and letting viewers decide.  The front page and the editorial section have merged. Everything is an editorial, now. Opinions, when not blatantly stated, are hidden in the facts or the stories that have been selected to be reported, or in the subtle word choice used while reporting.  And before anything can be said about the news you read, listen to or watch, this first must be acknowledged.

A secondary element to this discussion is the ridiculous notion that is pushed by the right about the liberal bias of the “mainstream media.” Now, I have already stated that most news sources show a bias. Some stronger than others.  Some are actually completely factual but because those facts fly in the face of one ideology or another, those facts are considered biased.  However, it is patently absurd for the number one cable news network in the country according to Nielsen ratings (Fox News), along with  two of the top listened-to radio programs in the country (Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) NOT to consider themselves mainstream media.

It is just as absurd for those same mainstream media outlets to claim any lack of bias.  I am not writing this as a hit job on Fox News, though I might argue that they deserve it, but I watch a lot of Fox News and once upon a time (three years ago or so) I listened to Rush Limbaugh frequently. It does not take a media expert or any kind of expert to identify the biases present in both.

Personally, I like my news to come at me in the form of a debate or a conversation.  Because this is so difficult to achieve, I find that the best alternative I can recommend is to flip back and forth between CNN, Fox News and MSNBC depending on the story being reported. Check different websites for their editorials on the hot-button issue of the day. Try something other than NPR to get your radio news… no wait, don’t do that. I love NPR.

The point is that if you only watch news that reaffirms what you already feel, you will never learn anything about the changing world and the issues that face it. In order to open your mind to all possible outcomes to a particular event, consumers of the news will have to diversify inputs on their own, to make up for the fact that news outlets themselves have ceased to diversify their outputs.

While I could go on for pages about my issues with the media, those are going to be conversations for another day. I think this is a good starting point. Let’s simply acknowledge that most news comes with a bias or opinion built in, and that Fox News and other conservative-leaning news sources are completely mainstream and have no room to boast of some sort of moral high ground against any liberal-leaning outlets.

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