WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE: On balance, these people just aren't very sharp!


Epilogue—Who is the new public editor: Margaret Sullivan may turn out to be a superb New York Times public editor.

That said, we were puzzled by Sullivan’s first real column, the column which appeared in yesterday's paper. So were a bunch of Times readers.

In comments, those readers offered accurate gripes, from both the right and the left.

To her credit, Sullivan chose a very good topic—the issue of so-called false equivalence (false balance). In Sullivan’s words, “false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side.”

That was stated a bit unclearly, but you probably get the idea. Long ago, Paul Krugman described the problem a bit more colorfully. Just last year, he restated his famous complaint:

Some of us have long complained about the cult of ''balance,'' the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ''Views Differ on Shape of Planet.''

Fourteen months after Krugman's column appeared, Sullivan chose a very good topic for her first public editor piece. And not only that! Along the way, she made several good points about the problems involved in avoiding false balance. In this passage, she makes a good point about the types of demands partisans sometimes make:
SULLIVAN (9/16/12): You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan...

The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth. Editors and reporters say that is not always such an easy call. And sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts.

“There’s a temptation to say there are objective facts and there are opinions, and we should only use objective facts,” said David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief. “But there’s a big spectrum. We have to make analytical judgments about the veracity of all kinds of things.”
As quoted, Leonhardt’s remarks are a bit fuzzy (that may be Sullivan's fault). But Sullivan’s highlighted points are quite valid.

In many cases, it isn’t easy to say what “the facts” actually are. Equally important: It isn’t always easy to say which of the various established facts should be included in a news report. That’s may be part of what Leonhardt meant or said in the longer remarks Sullivan excerpted.

Beyond that, partisans often want to see their version of “the facts.” In the heat of battle, they may not realize that their own idea of the “facts” may be a bit skewed.

Sullivan chose a very good topic; she made a few decent points. But uh-oh! In this, her maiden outing, the public editor went off the rails when she discussed a recent news report about which Times readers have complained. Beyond that, her logic and language were often quite fuzzy. This extended right to the end of her piece, at which point she authored a major, deeply unfortunate groaner.

Sullivan may turn out to be a great public editor. But yesterday’s column had us asking that question again:

Who the heck are these guys?

Sullivan’s effort went off the rails when she discussed the recent report about which readers complained. According to Sullivan, readers said that a front-page report in last Monday’s Times displayed a bit of false balance:
SULLIVAN: Readers are quick to cite examples. Several who wrote to me thought there was an element of false balance in a recent front-page article in The Times on the legal battles over allegations of voter fraud and vote suppression—hot topics that may affect the presidential race.

In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements—rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.

“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.
Sullivan praised Bronner for having “made every effort to provide balance.” Since readers had complained about Bronner’s alleged false balance, this sounded somewhat strange.

At any rate, the Times had published a front-page report about the nationwide drive to establish “voter ID” laws. Somberg complained that Bronner ignored the Times’ own recent reporting. According to Somberg (no relation), the Times had established, in multiple reports, that there was little evidence of voter fraud.

In Somberg’s view, Bronner should have cited this fact in his front-page report about voter ID. He suggested the Times might be sliding back toward the cult of false balance.

That was the complaint. The wheels came flying off the cart when Sullivan offered these reactions:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.

“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.”

Mr. Bronner agreed. “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other,” he said. “The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out.” While he agreed that there was “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” and that could have been included in this story, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.”
Good God! Sifton sounded like a high priest in the cult of false balance. Of course the Times should report what “each side” has said. The claim is that the Times should also include relevant facts about the validity of those claims.

As quoted, Sifton sounded thoroughly clueless. As quoted, Bronner made matters worse. Sullivan quoted him saying that there is “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud.” But even after making this statement, he only said that this information could have been included in his lengthy front-page report.

Somewhat vaguely, Bronner was quoted saying that the lack of evidence of (in-person) voter fraud isn’t “the core issue.” Whatever that means, it may even be true. But isn’t it a highly relevant fact, whether it’s the “core issue” or not?

Many citizens will be kept from voting by these new voter-ID laws. Given that serious downside, should readers be told that these laws address a problem which can’t be shown to exist?

Inevitably, that’s a matter of judgment. But Sifton sounded like an apostle of false balance—and Bronner was said to agree with what Sifton said. And uh-oh!

At no point did the public editor express her view of these Timesmen’s remarks. Did Sullivan agree with Sifton’s view? There was no way to tell.

To appearances, Sullivan thought that Sifton’s remarks made all the sense in the world. She didn’t show the slightest sign of getting the smell of false balance.

In comments, many readers complained about the part of Sullivan’s column which dealt with Bronner’s front-page report. Quite correctly, others complained about the gigantic, world-class groaner with which came at the end of her piece.

It probably isn't what Sullivan meant. But this highlighted statement is a world-class groaner:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): It ought to go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.

The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership—and the democracy—will be.
Good God! That highlighted statement probably isn’t what Sullivan really meant. She probably meant something like this: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what the relevant facts are.

But Sullivan clumsily chose to say that the Times should “help readers know what to believe.” Good God! Conservatives have been accusing the Times of that strategy since the dawn of time!

Sullivan’s work was fuzzy throughout. At the end, she emitted a major-league groaner—a groaner which will be repeated for years. In comments, conservatives rightly complained about that clumsy statement. Liberals rightly complained about her hear-no-false-balance reaction to the remarks of Sifton and Bronner.

What a debut for this new public editor! Who are these people, we found ourselves asking, after reading this very weak effort.

We’ll offer the answer we’ve given for years. Strange as it seems in a very large nation, these people just aren’t very sharp.

As we've long told you, our mainstream press is a D-plus elite! If you doubt that counterintuitive claim, just read yesterday’s column!

Visit our incomparable archives: Sullivan became editor of the Buffalo News in September 1999. Three months later, the News published one of the most appalling editorials in the whole of the mainstream press corps’ twenty-month war against Gore.

The press had established a very low bar. Sullivan’s editorial board managed to slither beneath it.

Everyone with a hand in that sad editorial should have been canned the very next day. In truth, these people just aren’t very sharp. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/11/12.


  1. When they say they found "little evidence" of voter fraud, what does that mean? Some evidence but little? Or "not enough voter fraud to justify" a requirement. How much is enough? And given those descriptions of voter fraud, is it really "a problem that can't be shown to exist"?

    1. "no known evidence of in-person voter fraud"

      There, that wasn't so hard, was it? It was right there in front of us.

      So yes, basically, in-person voter fraud (the kind the GOP is claiming to fight against) is a problem that can't be shown to exist.

      The present article, of course, isn't about voter fraud. (Though the lack of such fraud, coupled with GOP efforts to make voting more difficult, certainly is a story worth investigating.)

      Nor is it about the fact that the New York Times doesn't see fit to bring us the relevant facts when it publishes an article about voter fraud. (Though their failure to do so is certainly damaging to public discourse.)

      No, the present article is about the fact that the New York Times is evidently blind to its own slavery to "false balance reporting" -- even (or, perhaps it would be more revealing to admit, especially) in a public editor's piece which claims to have "false balance reporting" as its subject.

    2. That's one of a few differing descriptions. Further, potential for fraud also exists even if evidence of such fraud has ever been pursued or discovered.

    3. Oh, it's been pursued -- it just hasn't been discovered.

      On the other hand, we do know that various schemes to eliminate (the nonexistent) fraud have definitely resulted in people who should legitimately be able to vote being denied access to the polls.

      So in summary, we have phantom fraud which some are eager to "prevent" by methods which don't reduce fraud (there being none to reduce) but which do effectively bar legit votes.

      It certainly does make one wonder whether there are ulterior motives, don't it?

    4. None of the ID measures should make someone who wants to vote ineligible to vote. If they are too lazy to acquire an ID which is a legitimate requirement, that's not a reason not to enact the requirement.

    5. It's the systematic opposition to the inherently reasonable idea of requiring voters to identify themselves that makes me wonder if someone has a stake in keeping things the way they are, beyond the altruistic motive for making sure everyone can vote.

    6. My mom hasn't had a driver's license in years. She will ride in a nursing-home provided van to the polls.

      She will say to the polling person "I'm Firsta Nastname -- and they'll look he up in the district list, ask her to sign the roll and let her vote.

      What ID do you want to make her get?

      How many different valid IDs do the unpaid poll staff have to know how to evaluate?

      Before you change the process, the burden is on *you* to show there's a problem, and to show you aren't making the process worse or excluding voters.

  2. Where fraud HAS been shown to exist is in absentee ballots. Interestingly, Republicans show absolutely no interest in remedying that problem. (Could it be because absentee ballots tend to skew Repbulican? Perish the thought.)

  3. Hawaii has had a voter ID law at least since 1971. I guess we're a bunch of virulent racists here. Good to know.

    1. No, just idiots -- or maybe that's singular.

      But seriously, ABL.

      Instead of your douchebag-like approach of getting snarky about being called a racist (when there's no evidence anywhere here of people saying all voter ID tactics are racist), you could provide some facts about HI law. What problem was it supposedly intended to solve? Has its efficacy been measured? What were the arguments against it? Has there been any study of "unintended" effects?

      Or, you know, go f*ck yourself!

    2. IMHO if any side of this debate is racist, it's the opponents of voter IDs. After all, the opponents' argument boils down to the claim that African Americans are too stupid or too lazy to get ID cards.

    3. WTF? Until this particular comment and the resulting thread showed up, I hadn't noticed the R word in either the blog post or any of the other comments responding to it. Get a grip, gentlemen. Please.

      Ray DeLagarto

    4. Of course no one is alleging that Hawaii's voter Id law is racist, but if it's racist to have (or even advocate)voter ID in a mainland state, why is Hawaii exempt?
      Count me also as skeptical of there existing significant numbers of folks with no ID (who don't cash checks, travel by air, have a bank account, buy alcohol, go to a club, etc.) who are also dedicated voters. Having voters identify themselves is inherently reasonable. If these no ID voters exist, well you know where they are, if they're registered. Get them IDs.

      How is it affirmatively a good idea to not check voters' ID?

    5. "Of course no one is alleging that Hawaii's voter Id law is racist, but if it's racist to have (or even advocate)voter ID in a mainland state, why is Hawaii exempt?"

      NO ONE was saying it was racist -- Until you showed up to complain you were being called a racist, douchbag!

      What ID do you insist people have?

      How many different types of valid IDs do the unpaid poll staff have to know how to evaluate?

      Before you change the process, the burden is on *you* to show there's a problem, and to show you aren't making the process worse or excluding voters.

  4. "At no point did the public editor express her view of these Timesmen’s remarks. Did Sullivan agree with Sifton’s view? There was no way to tell."

    No way to tell to the point that I couldn't help but wonder, is Sullivan presenting us with true allegory, or maybe with a masterful demonstration of the highest art of parody?

    I'd like to hope it was one of those options, but I fear not. Probably just more obfuscation of the kind that makes reading so many NYT's articles excruciating.

  5. weamericanswithanirish-catholicheritagewillnotbepushed,filed,stamped,indexed,briefed,debriefedornumbered. oursocietyisourown.September 18, 2012 at 12:40 AM

    "WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE: On balance, these people just aren't very sharp!" - lord robert somerby

    >>> "these people", subliminally short for americans with an (possible) irish-catholic heritage. got it.

    google: site:dailyhowler.com irish catholic

    1. "These people" isn't subliminal at all -- it means your media. Which includes plenty non-Irish Catholics, who also come in for a beating from Somerby.

      Back on your meds, kiddo!

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