Who the heck is Rebecca Berg and how the heck does she do it: Last Friday, the New York Times published a large campaign report—a report which struck us as weirdly fatuous, even for the Times.
The piece ran almost 1300 words. It sat at the top of page A14, accompanied by a photo.
Who is Rebecca Berg? we asked the analysts, referring to the article’s author. Before we provide the answer, let’s review some things Berg said.
In fairness, some parts of Berg’s report are newsworthy if true (and if made coherent). According to Berg, there are fewer “true swing voters” than people may think. Near the start of her report, Berg attempted to nail down the number:
BERG (8/17/12): About one-third of Americans describe themselves as independent voters, creating a widespread impression that a large group of Americans will provide the decisive swing votes in this year's election. But that impression is misleading, polling experts and political scientists say.Only 3 to 5 percent of voters are up for grabs, Berg said, having just provided data which suggest the number is more like 16 percent. (Roughly half of the 33 percent who say they’re independent.)
Many self-described independents—close to half, according to surveys—reliably vote for one party or the other. And many true swing voters live in states, like California or Texas, where no analyst doubts the outcome in November.
In spite of clichés about Nascar dads and Walmart moms, the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate.
Did Berg mean that just 3 to 5 percent of voters are up for grabs and live in swing states? Whatever! We’ll admit we were already somewhat confused. But we didn’t start asking, “Who is Berg?” until the scribe began explaining Where The Swing Voters Are.
Where can the nation’s swing voters be found? As Berg began to explain, we began to think of Chance the Gardener in the famous film, Being There:
BERG: Among those whose past behavior suggests they are up for grabs this year, a few demographics are well represented. Many of those swing voters will be younger, or will not have graduated from college. More swing voters will be women than men.“Many” of these swing voters will be younger? The statement is utterly meaningless.
“Many” won’t be college grads? In 2008, the majority of all voters weren't college graduates.
More swing voters will be women than men? In 2008, women constituted 53 percent of all voters nationwide.
Even for the Times, this seemed like puzzling stuff. Incomparably, we kept reading. As we did, we hit a claim which seemed somewaht obvious on its face, accompanied by another claim which seemed absurdly precise:
BERG (continuing directly): In three tossup states—Colorado, Florida and Nevada—Hispanics could make up as much as one-fifth of the swing vote. And non-college graduates will make up roughly 57 percent of swing voters in battleground states this year, according to one Democratic pollster, whose estimates were confirmed within a few points by a Republican.Hispanics could make up as much as one-fifth of the swing vote in those states? (Which means they could be less than one-fifth?) According to exit polls, Hispanics constituted roughly 15 percent of all voters in those states in 2008.
Non-college graduates will make up roughly 57 percent of swing voters in battleground states this year? That "estimate" seemed weirdly precise. But just for the record, non-college graduates made up 56 percent of all voters in 2008, according to exit polling.
At this point, Berg quoted a pro-Clinton pollster denigrating white working-class voters. (It’s what we liberals do best!) Before long, though, Chance the Gardener seemed to have re-emerged:
BERG: A senior Romney aide, who requested anonymity discussing strategy, says the campaign's microtargeting has identified specific swing-voter-rich counties in swing states: In Virginia, for example, a large number of swing voters are concentrated in Fairfax County, just outside the District of Columbia; in Ohio, by contrast, undecided or persuadable voters are scattered throughout the state. In some cases, demographic patterns emerge: In Arapahoe County, Colo., just outside Denver, the majority of swing voters will probably be women, the aide said.A large number of swing voters are concentrated in Fairfax County, Virginia? It’s by far the biggest county in the state by population. (Did Berg mean to say a “disproportionate” number?)
Among these swing voters, only some are genuinely torn about whom to support but are certain they will vote, and a significant number favor a political party and will vote for the candidate of that party or not at all.
In Ohio, persuadable voters are scattered throughout the state? You can make a safe bet on that!
Just outside Denver, the majority of swing voters will probably be women? That’s a fairly safe wager too! Almost surely, the majority of all voters will be women, on a nationwide basis.
(The second paragraph posted above may be a Rubik’s cube.)
There was more of this in Berg’s report, but by now, our curiosity had been aroused. We didn’t recognize Berg’s name, and so we called in the analysts.
Who is Rebecca Berg? we demanded. Even we were surprised by the answer the analysts brought us.
As it turns out, Rebecca Berg is very young as these matters go. She graduated from the University of Missouri this June—and she seems to have done so “on time.” (In a profile we link to below, she says she was entering middle school when September 11 occurred.)
There’s nothing "wrong" with being young; in some ways, it’s an advantage. But why is someone so young and inexperienced writing major campaign news reports for the great New York Times?
We see little in Berg’s undergraduate resume which destines her for such instant prominence. To review her journalism at the Missourian, just click this. Like us, you won’t be blown away—certainly not by the first column listed, in which Berg discusses the way she regulates her caffeine intake.
Question: Why in the world is this very young person writing this fatuous piece in the Times? In fairness, her editor deserves a great deal of blame for the foolishness found in this news report. But what explains Journalist Berg’s remarkable rise at the Times?
We have no idea, of course. But Berg was recently profiled by The Wild, a hip new magazine—and we’d have to say she strikes us a determined climber. In just a dozen short Q-and-A’s, she kisses the keister of half the press corps, fawning to several big players by name. Below, we highlight two of our favorite responses:
What journalists do you most admire?Where do they find these people, you ask. Nowhere! These people find them!
There are so, so many. One of my first mentors was Virginia Young, who is the chief state government reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she taught me the fundamentals of responsible, intelligent reporting on government. Ryan Lizza, who writes about politics for The New Yorker and for whom I interned last year, crafts some of the most compelling, well-written, well-reported stories out there. And I’m terribly biased, but I have the utmost admiration for the entire Washington bureau of The New York Times; in a time rife with sensational reporting on political minutiae, they continue to work for the public good and hold their stories to the highest journalistic standards.
What is your most striking moment?
In late October 2008, when I was a freshman in college, then-Senator Obama swung through my college town for a last bit of campaigning before the presidential election. By an incredible stroke of luck, I was able to meet and speak with a few members of his traveling press corps. We talked shop, and then they asked my friends and I to drive them to a bar—even after they had spent a grueling day on the campaign trail. I thought, These must be the coolest people in the world; in fact, I still do.
At any rate, we'll offer a guess: People who kiss keister this way may rise quite quickly at the Times. In truth, their fatuous work is on display all over that horrible newspaper.
(They also may get themselves profiled in magazines at a time when their work has barely appeared in the Times, or anywhere else for that matter. However Berg does it, she seems to be skilled at getting herself out there.)
To us, Berg’s report seemed so odd that we wondered who she is.
Berg is very young, we learned. Her journalism may be a bit weak. But her climbing skills seem quite advanced, and those may be the skills which matter.