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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

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On Politicizing… Everything

September 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I like to write with reason and evidence and facts as often as I can, but on rare occasions I’m just angry. Today is one of those occasions. As you have probably read, there were attacks on embassies in Egypt and Lybia over the past 24 hours with 3 Americans killed, including the Ambassador, J. Christopher Stephens, in Lybia. (Sean Smith is another victim; two others have not been named as of this writing.) This, in and of itself, is worthy of both sadness and anger.

But if you want to be even more upset, turn on the news and listen for a bit. The Romney camp criticized the Obama camp for its perceived response. The Obama camp then criticized the Romney camp for playing politics. Of course, as soon as you suggest that the opposite side is playing politics, you necessarily are also playing politics by even bringing it up. I’m beginning to think that if 9/11 had occurred during an election, it would have been as divisive an issue as it was unifying in a non-election year. Is there nothing that rises above the cause of political gain!?

This whole campaign has been a disgrace to America. The media coverage of campaigns is a disgrace; satisfied to cover the horse race instead of the horses; satisfied to stoop to the level of common discourse rather than attempt to raise the bar. I’m tired of the whole process. Do me two favors, handful of readers:

First, take a look at your local ballots. Find anyone on it without a D or an R next to their name. Google that person and check to see if they have real-world qualifications that would prepare them for an important job. If they do, vote for them.

Second, turn off cable news. All channels. I’ll do my best to do it, too. Maybe even boycott their advertisers or something. But do SOMETHING. The two political parties and the preeminence of cable news are horrible for this country. I’d like to do more, but this is all I can think of and accomplish right now.

On Straw Men Turning Pinocchio

August 3, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the most annoying things about the polarized back-and-forth banter that dominates our civil discourse is the incredibly common use of “straw man” arguments. Analysts from both sides build up a fabricated opposition position and rip it down while few, if any, of their opponents actually prescribe to the extreme version of the debate that has just been defeated. This is fairly commonplace on both sides of most issues, but the right wing news (such as Fox News and the talk radio networks) is exceptionally good at this, which is one of the reasons that I often find myself getting so frustrated while watching or listening to those stations.

However, what I find far more annoying is when those straw men make like Pinocchio and turn real because people in leadership or prominent positions stand up and fit themselves into those seemingly ridiculous straw man arguments. More and more lately, I have found that happening, giving phony straw positions the shred of credibility that they need to survive. Usually in these cases, the straw man argument still holds little water. Usually, those who stand up to fill the voice of the straw man arguments represent the fringes, not the norm. But even a little bit of substantiating information, even from the vast minority, can make a ridiculous or misleading argument seem more real.

When being trained in Psychological Operations with the Army, we were told repeatedly that credibility is your most valuable asset in information dissemination. If you get caught lying to a population, then your credibility is shot for the future. Similarly, the converse can ring true: if you can demonstrate a lack of credibility in the opposing point of view or its source, then the entire argument or sometimes even its associated ideology will begin to ring hollow.

I first decided to write this blog because I was reading a somewhat scathing report about Mitt Romney’s tax plan by the Brookings Institution and the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Reading the methods of the report, I found that the numbers would probably stand up to close scrutiny, yet an assumption or two (particularly the assumed goal of revenue neutrality) might be debatable by the Romney campaign, if forced to address them.

However, the response from the Romney team did not address the substance of the report at all. It simply counted it among a number of “liberal studies calling for more tax hikes and more government spending” by Obama. It sounds like dismissing an independent report without addressing the merits as simply being a “liberal study” would be part of common straw man arguments about liberal intellectuals or tax and spend Democrats. But then you read that one of the three authors of the report used to work for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. And suddenly, dismissing the entire report out of hand might make sense, no matter how credible the numbers within may be. The credibility of the report itself has been compromised, predictably.

Another example of this is in the Chick-fil-A debate. I’ve already given extensive attention to the issue, but the way that it has been presented through the media deserves its own mention. Many outlets viewed this as a freedom of speech issue in that the CEO should be able to think and say whatever he so wishes. However, as many pointed out, freedom of speech is about governmental action. People have every right to protest, boycott, or otherwise raise hell (legally) based on what someone says. This should never be about freedom of speech. To mask this as an issue of persecution or a lack of freedom of speech seemed like a straw man argument, right? How easy is it to simply defend a CEO’s right to their opinion rather than defend the objectives of the organizations to which the corporation made donations or the importance of exercising choice in capitalism through boycotts?

Well, then mayors in a number of major cities (Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh among them*) have made statements either vaguely or directly alluding to the idea that they would try to block Chick-fil-A from operating within their cities. Suddenly, the government was in fact attempting to restrict someone’s rights based on their beliefs. Suddenly, this actually was a First Amendment issue. That should have remained a straw man, but alas it received enough credibility to transform the issue in many circles.

* (I did not include Washington D.C. here because the mayor’s remarks in full clearly stated that despite his disagreement, there is nothing he can do to restrict/bar the business)

And finally, as I am writing this, reports are breaking that the Justice Department is giving just a sliver of credibility to the old straw man argument that Democrats do not support or appreciate our troops by suing the state of Ohio over military voting laws. Granted, the lawsuit does not aim to restrict voting rights for the military in any way. Granted the Fox News coverage is misleading and unfair. However, the lawsuit targets a law that grants special voting allowances specifically to military members by stating that those allowances should be made for everyone. The lawsuit claims that the distinction between military voters and civilian voters is “arbitrary.” And so the statement that Democrats are unsympathetic to the military is now backed by a lawsuit filed to by the administration arguing (in different terms) that our troops aren’t special. And Pinocchio turns real.

On the Monthly Jobs Report

I don’t remember exactly when it happened. I think it was some time while I was in Afghanistan. Maybe having a regular piece of news from the states helped count down the months until I returned. Or maybe it was because each month, you have this little piece of hope and optimism begging for tangible evidence that the U.S. economy will, in fact, get better. Maybe it’s something a little wonkier than that and was just part of my growing appreciation for economics. Whatever the reason, sometime within the past 18 months, I’ve become obsessed with the monthly jobs reports.

It’s a little embarrassing, really. I have on at least two occasions declined the chance to stay out late on Thursday nights because I didn’t want to sleep through the Friday 9:00 am release of the numbers. This past semester, I was lucky enough to have one early Friday class that forced me to be awake, and then a clear day behind it so I got to devote plenty of time to jobs coverage. My normal routine is to start on Fox News. I know enough myself to be able to digest and interpret most of the numbers, but part of the fun of the monthly job report is watching all the spin, and nobody spins like Fox News. After getting a healthy (often infuriating) 30-45 minutes on Fox News, I’ll hop around from CNN to MSNBC and if I happen to be in a car that day at the right time, I of course tune into NPR (and yes, I know that radio is available outside of cars).

Having said all of that, the next part might come as a bit of a surprise coming from me: We have to calm down about the monthly jobs report. I guess this is mainly a media/political pundit problem. I’m sure telling casual readers of my blog to calm down about the jobs report may count as preaching to the choir, but I hope that this post might serve as a sort of viewers’ guide as far as how NOT to interpret the monthly jobs report… or at least its coverage.

The most important thing I have to say here is that each month is not an isolated event. Remember in December, January and February, when the monthly jobs reports were beating expectations and the Obama administration and many Democrats greeted each new report with an accompanying statement that this was proof that the economy was on the right track? And here we are this week after the job growth numbers have failed to meet expectations for 2-3 consecutive months and now Mitt Romney has repeatedly stated that this is clearly proof that Obama’s policies have failed. Of course, if June’s numbers prove that Obama’s policies have failed, what did February’s numbers tell us?

You see, one month cannot “prove” anything. And if anyone uses one month as “proof,” they set themselves up to be proved wrong a month or two later when the report goes a different direction.  When the Obama administration claimed that a monthly jobs report, on its own, could prove their point, they left themselves open to the counter attack when the bad news came… and the funny thing is that we knew it was coming.

When seeking out the most objective economists’ opinions, it becomes a lot easier to keep things in perspective. When those higher-than-expected numbers were flowing at the beginning of 2012, many economists theorized that the unseasonably warm weather was causing some hiring to “borrow” from the Spring by hiring workers earlier than they normally would. Those economists predicted lower-than-expected numbers for Spring, just as we have been seeing.

Furthermore, you may have heard a lot of Republicans claiming that the unemployment number was dropping only because the labor force was shrinking (a claim that was often true for individual months, but is untrue when looking at the broader trend over the past 6-8 months). Because the labor force participation rate has been low coming out of the recession, many economists suggested that as the unemployment number fell, many people would see signs of improvement and resume their job search, thus pushing the unemployment number back up a little, something like what just happened in going from 8.1% to 8.2% this month.

Like I said, looking at the broader trend and the numbers through a long-term scope, we all should have known what kind of jobs reports to expect this Spring. When the unemployment rate unexpectedly fell from 8.5% to 8.3% in a single month, my first thought was, “That’s probably going to start to tick back up soon.” When new jobs were far outpacing expectations, I thought, “This won’t last.” The numbers told us to think that. Honest economists told us to think that.

But when each individual month is looked at in a vacuum and politicized to the maximum degree, a bad jobs report seems like the end of the world, and a good jobs report seems like cause for a national celebration. Clearly, neither is true. And I think that I would enjoy my little ritual on the first Friday of every month a lot more if the people covering the numbers were honest enough to admit that.

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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On Bullying and Self Confidence

April 6, 2012 1 comment

Over the past year or two, there has been a strong anti-bullying push making its way through pop culture and the media, culminating in the somewhat controversial movie, Bully, which got a round of free publicity through a recent spat with the Motion Picture Association of America over it’s rating. It’s certainly a noble goal and a worthy cause. No one wants their child or any children to grow up with the emotional wounds of being bullied, but I can’t help but think that it’s all a bit wrong-headed.

When you really think about it, the anti-bullying campaign is nothing new.  It’s adults trying to get children to stop being mean to each other. Something about that just seems… I don’t want to say hopeless, but isn’t it? Are kids ever going to stop being mean to each other?

When I was growing up, the focus was on preparing children for a world in which not everyone would be nice. Perhaps the best strategy of preparation would be to work as hard as you can to make sure that children know that their sense of self worth should not be derived from the opinions of others.  I know that’s an uphill battle, as well. I know that everywhere in pop culture, there are pressures to value yourself through the eyes of others (though I see that more as a symptom than a cause). But while a social stigma against bullying is a lovely ideal to which to aspire, I guess I just find it a better life-long lesson if a child is filled with self-confidence that stems from within. There is far, far more to it than this, but it boils down to “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

That’s a funny phrase, because a couple years ago, I noticed that the popular childhood mantra has ceased to apply in adulthood. Media outlets have made a career of parsing words, inciting outrage and forcing apologies based on a couple of hurtful words.  And now this lack of adherence to “words will never hurt me” in adulthood is trickling through the way in which we as a society approach child bullying.

Obviously, I hope that the anti-bullying campaign is successful. I hope that a social pressure grows to reduce the ill will between and among children.  However, I see it at best as only a supplement for an effort that appears to have landed directly on the back burner. Value your children for who they are, and make sure that they do the same.

Make sure that your little girls’ sense of self worth is not derived from the amount of attention she gets from young boys (imagine how much that could affect teenage sex and pregnancy rates, as so many young girls attempt to live up to pubescent boys’ expectations).

Make sure that your little boy doesn’t derive his self worth based on how accurately he can throw a ball (but also, an active lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle. But that’s a whole different issue).

Make sure that children see examples of success and happiness that come from all different types of people.

Show children that living to impress a specific group of kids is harder and more miserable than finding solace in a group of like-minded kids that appreciate them as they are.

I guess that’s the lesson I wish had half as much traction as anti-bullying: Love yourself for who you are and love people who love you for who you are (and who love themselves for who they are).  There will be cliques. There will be friction. There will be harsh words exchanged. But if you instill in a child the value of valuing themselves, it all starts to matter a little bit less. I’m eternally grateful to my parents (and my childhood friends) for succeeding in this effort with me. It made it possible for a smallish theater kid who was routinely (wrongly) assumed to be gay to make my way through adolescence in absolute happiness. I wish the same happiness for children everywhere.

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