Part 2—The New York Times tries to report: Decades ago, we did some teaching from a major publisher’s third or fourth grade social studies textbook.
If memory serves, the book discussed the Bushmen of the Kalahari. We have no idea if what follows is true:
In this textbook, the Bushmen were said to be among the world’s smallest people. According to the book, these people had a characteristic salutation when meeting one another: “I saw you from afar.” In this way, the book explained, the Bushmen attempted to compensate for their unusually small stature.
In this way, the textbook explained, the Bushmen talked themselves up.
We have no idea if that story is true; we believe we’re recalling it correctly. Decades later, we often think of that story when we watch our journalists and our cable pundits attempt to discuss the world’s major events. We also think of that story when we read about the state of the public’s knowledge.
Through our various western mythologies, we humans have long announced that we are “the rational animals.” Anyone who reads a newspaper will know this isn’t quite accurate. Example:
Did you read Ruth Marcus’ excellent column in this morning’s Washington Post? At one point, Marcus describes the state of the public’s knowledge concerning the so-called individual mandate in the Obama health plan.
How rational are we human animals? When we praise ourselves in such ways, we’re seeing ourselves from afar:
MARCUS (3/21/12): In the Kaiser poll, 30 percent of those who opposed the mandate cited government overreach as the biggest reason. Not surprisingly, twice as many Republicans (40 percent) cited that reason as did Democrats (18 percent).Good God. According to Marcus, “a Kaiser Family Foundation poll this month found that two-thirds of those surveyed disliked the mandate.” But opposition was cut in half when respondents were told the world’s most obvious fact.
But opposition to the mandate also stems from the public’s failure to understand—or, alternatively, the administration’s failure to communicate—basic facts.
For example, Kaiser found that when people were told that most Americans “would automatically satisfy the requirement because they already have coverage through their employers,” favorability toward the mandate nearly doubled, to 61 percent.
Somewhat typically, Marcus snarks at the public for this fine mess—and at the Obama’s administration’s failure to communicate. There is no suggestion that the press might play a role in this latest, rather typical intellectual disaster.
And yet, the press corps routinely does a terrible job explaining even the most basic facts. This guild’s basic skills are amazingly weak.
Just consider the case of John Broder (no relation).
Yesterday, we noted that Broder had done something unusual. In Tuesday morning’s New York Times, he fact-checked some statements by Candidate Romney. Most strikingly, he seemed to say that Romney’s statements were just a big bag of fail:
BRODER (3/20/12): Obama Energy Policies Differ From Romney’s PortrayalThat’s the way the report began in our hard-copy paper. Given the Times’ bewildering array of editions, your results may differ. (For the shorter version of Broder’s report which appears on-line, just click here.)
In a television interview on Sunday and a Web video released on Monday, Mitt Romney said that President Obama has sought higher gasoline and energy prices and called on the president to dismiss three cabinet officers Mr. Romney claims have abetted him.
But the assertion is largely unsubstantiated or misleading, as are other statements Mr. Romney has made in recent days about Obama administration policies.
(Why would a shorter version appear on-line? We have no idea.)
At any rate, Broder said that Candidate Romney has been misrepresenting the facts about Obama’s stands on gasoline and energy prices. Lustily, the analysts cheered—until they read Broder’s report.
On-line, Broder presents three examples designed to show that Romney’s statements are wrong or misleading. (Our hard-copy paper includes a fourth.) In each case, we’d have to say that Broder basically fails.
This was Broder’s first and strongest attempt. Again, we quote from our hard-copy Times:
BRODER (continuing directly): On Fox News on Sunday, Mr. Romney said of Mr. Obama, “Well, there’s no question that when he ran for office, he said he wanted to see gasoline prices go up.”In that interview, did Candidate Obama say he wanted to see gasoline prices go up? From what Broder writes, it’s hard to say; though this is Broder’s most thorough example, he quotes only a small part of Obama’s interview.
The Romney campaign did not provide any documentation for the charge, but it appears to have arisen from a June 2008 interview that Mr. Obama, then a senator, did with CNBC, when gasoline prices of about $4 a gallon were a huge political issue, as they are now. In that interview, Mr. Obama said prices had risen too quickly, putting a strain on the finances of many families. He did not endorse high prices.
“I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment,” Mr. Obama said. “The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing. But if we take some steps right now to help people make the adjustment, first of all by putting more money into their pockets, but also by encouraging the market to adapt to these new circumstances more quickly, particularly U.S. automakers, then I think ultimately, we can come out of this stronger and have a more efficient energy policy than we do right now.”
We are told that Obama didn’t “endorse high prices” in the interview. On the other hand, Obama is shown saying that he “would have preferred a gradual adjustment.”
From that statement, might a skeptic think that Obama was concerned with the speed of the change to the higher prices, not with the higher prices themselves? (Over the years, many progressives have endorsed higher gasoline prices.) According to Broder, Obama said that prices had risen too quickly. Mightn’t that mean that the higher prices were desirable, but we had gone there too fast?
For ourselves, we have no idea what Obama said in that full interview, but Broder’s attempt to dispute Romney’s claim strikes us as quite unimpressive. And his critique of Romney’s claims only gets weaker as it continues. Here's his full second example:
BRODER: Mr. Romney also cited a comment from a 2008 interview in which Mr. Obama said that under a strict cap-and-trade program to address climate change, energy prices would “necessarily skyrocket.” After becoming president, Mr. Obama endorsed a House Democratic climate change bill that contained numerous provisions to limit the costs to consumers.Candidate Obama proposed a plan under which energy prices would “skyrocket.” It’s hard to see how this is supposed to contradict Romney’s initial assertion. But then, Broder’s third example may be even more worthless:
BRODER (continuing directly): In his Web video, Mr. Romney called for Mr. Obama to dismiss his energy and interior secretaries and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who he said were deliberately driving energy prices higher, blocking oil and gas development and imposing costly regulations on utilities.Sigh. Romney alleges that Chu has done certain things. Broder counters by relating two things Chu has said.
Steven Chu, the energy secretary, did say in 2008–before he was nominated to the cabinet–that gasoline prices in the United States should rise to the levels of Europe (about $8 a gallon) to encourage conservation and alternative transport. But Mr. Chu walked back from that comment in his confirmation hearings and disavowed it entirely last week.
As we’ve told you before: Fact-checking seems like a good idea—until you see journalists do it. Let's consdier a contrast:
Four days before Broder’s painful effort, Paul Krugman wrote this informative column. In it, he detailed some of the bullroar about energy prices which is currently being peddled by Romney and others on the right.
Four days later, Broder gave it a try. But alas! In his high competence, Krugman is a major outlier in the press, an accidental hire.
As a general matter, our press corps’ skills are extremely weak, unless we choose to watch from afar. Our mythologies tell us this can’t be the case.
Our mythologies are highly skilled liars.
Tomorrow: The New York Times tackles taxation