FICTITIOUS TIMES: An ad in the form of a news report!


Part 3—The New York Times does it again: Do we “live in fictitious times?”

Actually, yes we do. Here’s a larger chunk of what Michael Moore said as he accepted an Oscar in 2003 for best documentary film:
MOORE (3/23/03): I have invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us, and we would like to—they're here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it's the fictition of duct tape or fictition of orange alerts we are against this war, Mr. Bush.
According to Moore, we were being sent to war “for fictitious reasons.” According to Moore, various fictitions were shaping our view of the world.

Do we live in fictitious times? Actually yes, we do. As information surveys make clear, we the people are routinely misinformed about almost every major topic.

Were American schools once the best in the world? Does Texas have horrible test scores? In the realm of the public schools, if it weren’t for the mis- and disinformation, there wouldn’t be any info at all!

But this pattern obtains in many areas, as interest groups deceive the public—and as the “press corps” fails to explain anything much at all.

Let’s be clear: It isn’t always the press corps’ fault when we the people are misinformed. If we could create a flawless press corps, we rubes would still be misinformed about a wide range of matters.

That said, it’s also true that the mainstream “press corps” is part of our misinformation problem. In many areas, it’s fairly clear that the mainstream press doesn’t even try to explain basic facts. In other areas, “journalists” seem determined to spread bogus facts all around.

And uh-oh! To the extent that our “journalists” try to explain (or pretend to do so), they are often amazingly bad at this basic task.

It’s “journalists” who keep repeating the misinformation about public schools. Yesterday, we had occasion to look at Gail Collins’ new book, in which four chapters are devoted to on public school topics.

Regarding those chapters, we’ll only say this: Good God!

Information to follow next week.

To a remarkable extent, people are misinformed about schools because of our major “journalists.” But then, do journalists at the New York Times even want to impart information? And to the extent that they want to explain, do they know how to do so?

We’d say the answers are no and no. Consider a topic which got big play just a few months back.

Last Saturday, the Washington Post did a news report about the health care law’s contraception mandate, a topic which got a great deal of recent attention. According to reporter Michelle Boorstein, a major ally of President Obama has flipped on the requirement that Catholic hospitals and universities provide contraception coverage to employees:
BOORSTEIN (6/16/12): The White House has lost perhaps its most prominent Catholic ally in its controversial effort to expand contraception coverage, with the huge Catholic Health Association saying Friday that the mandate for most religious employers to offer coverage would not "adequately meet the religious liberty concerns."

The change of position at the association, the country's largest group of nonprofit health-care providers, comes as polls show President Obama and Mitt Romney tied among registered Catholic voters. For the past four of five presidential races, the candidate who won Catholics won the presidency.
The Catholic Health Association is led by Sister Carol Keehan, hero of columns by E. J. Dionne. Originally, her group supported the “compromise” Obama crafted concerning contraception coverage.

Now, Keehan’s group has flipped.

Will this topic become a major part of the fall campaign? We have no idea. If it does, will voters have any real idea how Obama’s “compromise” works? For ourselves, we thought journalistic explanations were clear as mud when this topic held center stage. Here’s the way Boorstein described the compromise last weekend:
BOORSTEIN: The mandate that employers, including most religious ones, offer employees a variety of preventive services, including contraception, without any out-of-pocket charge, has been controversial among some from the start, particularly Catholic bishops. Actual houses of worship were exempted, but not faith-based institutions such as schools and hospitals that don't primarily employ or serve people of the same faith.

The White House this year attempted to allay the concerns of faith-based employers by announcing that such employers wouldn't have to pay directly for the contraception coverage. Instead, health insurers would pay at no additional cost to the employers. But opponents, most visibly the bishops, said that still violated their faith and conscience.
Under the terms of the famous compromise, health insurers would pick up the tab for the contraception coverage. But what about the large number of Catholic hospitals and universities which are self-insured?

For ourselves, we never saw that matter explained in a way we understood. Last weekend, Boorstein didn’t try to do so.

Do you understand how this compromise works? Frankly, we do not. But then, very few topics get explained within the sprawling enterprise still described as our “mainstream press corps.”

The intellectual skills of this group are quite weak. Consider the large report in today’s New York Times about the health care law. It was written by Abby Goodnough.

The sprawling piece is the featured report in today’s National section. In our hard-copy Times, it dominates the first page of that section (page A14).

This piece got a very big lay-out. The top half of that page is almost wholly devoted to color photos of four average Pennsylvanians—citizens who are shown voicing objections to the health care law. Beneath that photographic lay-out, the report itself runs 1330 words. On page A18, the continuation of the report is accompanied by a fairly large graphic.

Within the National section, this is today’s featured news report. Part of its work is intellectually sound.

In major ways, the piece is atrocious.

What is sound about the report? Goodnough reports the amount of money spent on ads concerning the health care law. Much more money has been spent on ads which attack the law, she reports. Much less money has been spent on ads which support the law.

That is actual journalism. If Goodnough’s editors had stopped there, they would have been all right. But as she continues, Goodnough engages in all sorts of work which flies in the face of sound practice.

What is wrong with Goodnough’s report? Let us count the ways:

The headline of the report defines its apparent claim. “Opinion of Health Care Law Reflects Ad Spending,” it says. In her piece, Goodnough seems to say that the relative unpopularity of the law can be explained by the large sums spent on negative ads.

As Goodnough attempts to establish this claim, she bungles in various ways.

Alas! The reporter journeyed to the suburbs of Philadelphia, “one of the top five media markets for ad spending against the health care law.” Upon her arrival, she spoke to a very small number of people about their views of the law.

This is her (extremely hazy) account of what those (very few) people said:
GOODNOUGH (6/21/12): In interviews with about two dozen residents who were mostly opposed to the law, certain worries, resentments and dark predictions about it came up time and again.

Nearly everyone said the nation could not afford the law's goal of insuring about 30 million Americans, mostly through a vast expansion of the Medicaid program and federal subsidies to help others who cannot afford to buy coverage on their own.
These very few people were mostly opposed to the law, we are told. We are then told that “nearly everyone” said we can’t afford it!

Whatever! Goodnough goes on to say that the negative views of these people “may stem in large part” from all those negative ads. That is pure speculation, of course, as the word “may” helps us see.

Truth to tell, Goodnough has no idea if the negative ads produced those people’s views. These are the blindingly obvious problems with Goodnough’s basic technique:

Goodnough has no way of knowing if the views of her very small sample actually represent the views of the (million?) people who live in the Philly suburbs.

Beyond that, Goodnough has no idea if the views of those in the Philly suburbs differ in any significant way from the views of people in other locales—from the views of people who weren’t exposed to that volume of negative ads.

In short, Goodnough has no way of knowing what effect those ads have had.
Her headline seems to say the ads worked. In fact, she has no real idea.

This is very weak intellectual practice. But we haven’t mentioned the largest problem with this sprawling report.

What’s the biggest problem? This:

All through this report, from its photographs down, Goodnough quotes average citizens making negative claims about the health care law. But at no point does she try to say if these negative claims are accurate!

Would anyone but a New York Times journalist proceed in this mind-numbing fashion? People! If one of those conservative groups had placed an ad in this morning’s Times, that negative ad would look a great deal like this “news report!”

What do we see when we open the Times? Above the fold on page A14, we see color photos of four average white citizens voicing these heartfelt complaints:
Average Pennsylvanians’ complaints:
“It’s going to cost a fortune, and we already have a gigantic deficit.”
“I don’t think people should be required to have it. I think it should be a choice.”
"This is an attempt to basically take away our flexibility. And patients will lose their advocates.” (Spoken by a cardiologist.)
“If you look at nationalized health programs, whether it’s Canada’s or England’s, they ration everything.”
If the RNC had purchased an ad, the ad would look just like this!

Good God. At no point in her long report does Goodnough make any attempt to critique the punishing claims to which she keeps giving voice. Would the health law lead to rationing? Would it “cost a fortune?” Is it unaffordable?

These are punishing claims—but are they reasonable? Are they accurate? There’s no sign that Goodnough cares!

Finally, very late in her piece, Goodnough critiques one minor claim. She does so in paragraph 25—and her writing is clear as mud:
GOODNOUGH: Back in Langhorne, Cindy McMahon and Debbie Zimmerman, sisters who were selling produce at a farmers' market, said they disliked the individual mandate even though they thought everyone should have access to health care. Both women are uninsured, but since they are struggling to make ends meet, they fear being required to buy coverage.

''I don't think it's right,'' said Ms. Zimmerman, 49. ''If you don't want it or can't afford it, then what? You're stuck.''

The sisters would probably qualify for subsidized insurance under the law, but since the subsidies would come in the form of tax credits, Ms. Zimmerman said they would be cold comfort. ''Even if they gave you tax credits,'' she said, ''you couldn't get that until April. What are you going to do the rest of the year?''

(In fact, people who qualify for the credits would not have to wait until filing their taxes to receive them under the law.)
Do you understand the highlighted statement? Truthfully, we pretty much don’t—and this is Goodnough’s only attempt to critique the various claims against the health care law.

Goodnough spoke to “about two dozen” people. She wrote down their negative claims concerning the health care law.

Journalistically, it’s interesting to hear the things these people said. Goodnough's sample is small and unscientific. Even so, those interviews could have formed the basis of an informative news report.

But on a journalistic basis, it makes no sense to report these claims unless you plan to clarify the various things being said. If you simply repeat those claims—if you post them under color photos right at the top of the National section—you’re effectively running an ad.

You’re putting a bunch of thoughts in the heads of a whole lot of people. That is what those negative ads have been trying to do all year.

Do we live in fictitious times? Less grandly, do our highest-ranking “journalists” really know how to report?

Yesterday, we looked at Collins’ book. For today, we’ll only say this: Good grief. Good God. Inexcusable.

This morning, we opened the New York Times. We don’t allege bad motives here.

But did we basically see an ad in the form of a “news report?” Why on earth would a journalist broadcast those claims without trying to say if they’re accurate?

Tomorrow: Bringing up Bougie


  1. Just this:

    "But at no point does she try to say if these negative claims are accurate! Would anyone but a New York Times journalist proceed in this mind-numbing fashion?"

    Well, yes, as a matter of fact they would.

    Sadly, I heard a report on NPR which disgusted me for exactly this reason.

    Basically the same deal: We're just discussing the views of people. We're just showing you what people think.

    They think, it seems, that "the poor" are going to have to choose between eating, buying this required insurance, or paying huge fines.

    We're certainly not going to tell you if "what they think" is a great variance with reality. Here at NPR? That's. Not. Our. Job.

  2. Sorry, I know, I KNOW, it's manifestly unfair for the New York Times and NPR to get a drubbing unless FOX is equally chastised. So. FOX probably sucks too.

    There, I said it.

    I could only say "probably" because I honestly couldn't bear to find out for myself. It's hard enough turning off NPR in tears, folding the NYT in disgust, and shouting at Maddow. Can I really be expected to endure FOX also?

  3. Bravo to Mr. Sommerby and to Swan on this.