Puzzled again by the Times: Once again, we ask a basic question:
What are Trump supporters like? Why do millions of our fellow citizens plan to vote for Candidate Trump?
Yesterday morning, the Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen took a humane approach to this important question. On the front page of the Post, she penned a 2200-word profile of Ralph Case, a 38-year-old Trump supporter from North Canton, Ohio.
There are problems with this kind of reporting, of course. Ralph Case is just one person. Even if McCrummen is able to learn what makes him tick, that doesn't necessarily tell us about the other ten million Trump supporters.
Beyond that, there's no guarantee that a reporter like McCrummen will discern the truth about some individual voter. McCrummen profiled Case in a certain way. Maybe she missed key points.
You can't learn about Trump voters in general from reading long profiles of individual Trump voters. On the other hand, much coverage of Trump voters has involved aggressive denunciations tied to sweeping generalizations.
Often, the sweeping generalizations have a certain predetermined feel. Ironically, that's the way yesterday's analysis piece in the New York Times struck us.
The analysis piece was written by Neil Iwin and John Katz. It appeared beneath this headline:
"The Geography of Trump's Popularity"
For the record, yesterday's piece bore the newspaper's Upshot brand. This means that the piece by Irwin and Katz was supposed to be extra brainy.
It didn't strike us that way.
Below, you see the way the piece began. Were we imagining things, or had the Times already played "bombs away" just by paragraph 4?
IRWIN AND KATZ (3/15/16): The Geography of Trump's PopularityAs early as paragraph 4, we didn't quite know what we were reading. It sounded to us like the Times had said the following:
When the Census Bureau asks Americans about their ancestors, some respondents don't give a standard answer like ''English'' or ''German.'' Instead, they simply answer ''American.''
The places with high concentrations of these self-described Americans turn out to be the places Donald Trump's presidential campaign has performed the strongest.
This connection and others emerged in an analysis of the geography of Trumpism. To see what conditions prime a place to support Mr. Trump for the presidency, we compared hundreds of demographic and economic variables from census data, along with results from past elections, with this year's results in the 23 states that have held primaries and caucuses. We examined what factors predict a high level of Trump support relative to the total number of registered voters.
The analysis shows that Trump counties are places where white identity mixes with long-simmering economic dysfunctions.
In Trump's strongest counties, an unusual (but undisclosed) number of people describe their ancestry as "American." On this basis, Irwin and Katz seemed to say that voters in these counties are involved in "white identity."
Is that what Irwin and Katz were saying? We've read their article several times. We still have no idea.
In our view, this suggests that their writing was poor. It also suggests that they maybe perhaps had a preconceived bomb they were inclined to deploy.
How does saying your ancestry is "American" connect you to "white identity?" While we're at it, what exactly do our twin eggheads mean by that redolent term?
Irwin and Katz do a very poor job answering that second question. But there it is, a strongly suggestive term, throbbing right in paragraph 4 of their murky report, urging readers of the Times to engage in the pleasing practice of constructing a negative generalization.
Because this piece is an Upshot piece, it's built on egghead procedures. The author have created statistical "correlations" of a type most readers don't understand. Most readers will be poorly equipped to worry about their statistical practices.
On the other hand, readers won't have too much trouble spotting the early insinuation. Our view?
Because we humans are strongly inclined to engage in sweeping negative generalizations, journalists should be very careful not to encourage the practice.
For ourselves, we thought about our own "ancestors" as we puzzled over this murky piece. What would we tell the Census Bureau if we were asked the question the writers describe?
We'd probably decline to answer. As far as we know, our "ancestors" come from various different directions on the two sides of our family.
We wouldn't say our ancestors were "American," although we seem to recall declining to check boxes on official forms when asked to name our "race."
That said, we don't know what we're supposed to think about someone who does say "American." Nor do we know how many Trump voters, even in the counties in question, actually make that choice.
What are we supposed to think about someone who says "American?" Irwin and Katz chose to start their report with that variable. Does anyone have any idea what it's supposed to indicate, mean or suggest?
Instantly, Irwin and Katz seemed to suggest that the answer implies that Trump voters are somehow involved in "white identity," whatever that term is supposed to mean. And sure enough! They also chose to end their report with this same troubling matter:
IRWIN AND KATZ: Despite evidence that some individual Trump voters are driven by racial hostility, this analysis didn't show a particularly powerful relationship between the racial breakdown of a county and its likelihood of voting for Trump. There are Trump-supporting counties with both very high and very low proportions of African-Americans, for example.As Ronald Reagan might have said, there they go again!
One of the strongest predictors of Trump support is the proportion of the population that is native-born. Relatively few people in the places where Trump is strong are immigrants—and, as their answers on their ancestry reveal, they very much wear Americanness on their sleeve.
In their penultimate paragraph, the boys manage to associate "some Trump voters" with "racial hostility." As they close, they snidely say that "they very much wear Americanness on their sleeve."
Their closing statement is overtly snide. Also, it doesn't parse. Who is the "they" to whom the writers refer in that closing sentence? Technically, they seem to be referring to "people in the places where Trump is strong."
Technically, that seems to be the boys' antecedent. That said, might we suggest who they're really discussing in their snide closing remark? Aren't our brilliant Upshot eggheads really discussing Those People?
McCrummen profiled one Trump voter. We thought her work was quite humane.
The New York Times took a different approach. In our view, the gruesome newspaper was mining the same old vein.