DUMBNIFICATION STUDIES: Announcing our media trend of the year!


Part 1—Two different forms of poverty: We were struck by something on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times.

In a “Washington Memo” analysis piece, economics reporter Annie Lowrey discussed the War on Poverty, which is now 50 years old.

Headline included, this is the way she started:
LOWREY (1/5/14): 50 Years Later, War on Poverty Is a Mixed Bag

To many Americans, the war on poverty declared 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson has largely failed. The poverty rate has fallen only to 15 percent from 19 percent in two generations, and 46 million Americans live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate.
Lowrey went on to suggest that the war has not been a simple failure, a point with which we’d agree. But there you saw a standard statistic:

According to Lowrey, the poverty rate now stands at 15 percent.

(Ancillary question: “46 million Americans live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate?” What percentage would that be? Answer: Based on the 2012 population, it’s 14.7 percent. That’s amazingly close to 15!)

In the past year or so, we’ve become interested in federal measures of poverty. How does poverty today compare to poverty in the past? What kinds of income are considered in standard calculations of poverty?

A few weeks ago, Eduoardo Porter considered these questions in his weekly New York Times “Economics Scene” column. We’ll assume that Lowrey was working from some of the same research cited in Porter’s column.

At any rate, as Lowrey continued, she soon cited an alternate measure of the poverty rate. In just her ninth paragraph, she offered the presentation which we found quite striking:
LOWREY: Many economists argue that the official poverty rate grossly understates the impact of government programs. The headline poverty rate counts only cash income, not the value of in-kind benefits like food stamps. A fuller accounting suggests the poverty rate has dropped to 16 percent today, from 26 percent in the late 1960s, economists say.
Say what? If you don’t consider “the value of in-kind benefits like food stamps,” the poverty rate is 15 percent. But if you do consider such additional income, the rate stands at 16 percent!

To us, that didn’t seem to make sense, nor did Lowrey make any attempt to explain the apparent contradiction. But there it sat, right on the front page of the Sunday New York Times.

Does this apparent contradiction actually matter? Not exactly—unless you think a nation is helped by a coherent discourse.

Did we mention the fact that this presentation occurred on the front page of the Sunday New York Times? Were other readers of the famous newspaper puzzled by this presentation?

Lowrey’s apparent contradiction doesn’t exactly “matter.” In a graphic which accompanied her piece, you can see the possible source of this apparent contradiction—if you read the asterisk on the graphic, that is.

That said, we’re often puzzled by the technical incompetence, or insouciance, of our most influential news orgs and journalists. Just consider the series of posts we presented last week.

Simply put, you can’t do journalism without engaging in paraphrase and quotation. Paraphrase and quotation are very basic skills.

That said, our modern journalism has often been based on paraphrase and quotation taken straight from clown college. To cite one history-changing example, the two-year coverage of Campaign 2000 was built around bogus paraphrase and quotation.

In a similar vein, Susan Rice was thrown under the bus in 2012 based upon a standard narrative in which she was clownishly paraphrased and sometimes flatly misquoted.

On the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times, Rice was inventively paraphrased again—and she was flatly misquoted. These basic skills appear to be beyond the reach of the Times.

Paraphrase and quotation are extremely basic. That said, you could teach an entire college class on the insults to these practices which prevail in our upper-end press corps.

Have you ever seen anyone else comment on this remarkable journalistic problem?

The intellectual culture of our press corps is extremely soft. The dumbnification is so widespread that very few people notice or comment on the lack of even the most basic skills.

This Sunday, Lowrey (and/or her editor) displayed no problem with paraphrase or quotation. But her presentation of those statistics seemed quite striking to us.

For our money, the dumbnification of Salon was the most striking media event of the past year. Ever so briefly, we will discuss that dumbnification tomorrow.

That said, the dumbnification of Salon took place within a wider media culture in which the basic intellectual standards are astoundingly low:

The simplest statistics become a hash in the hands of leading reporters and editors. These simple statistics are too complex for ranking reporters to handle.

Alternately, in areas where basic statistics exist, reporters routinely refuse to consult them. Uniform journalistic themes may emerge in the process.

Often, reporters and editors will waste their time on inane topics instead. Examples of all these basic problems will appear through the week.

Rather plainly, the dumbnification of Salon was a corporate strategy. This is also true of the less sweeping dumbnification at MSNBC, a process which produced its third embarrassing recent flap last week.

We’ve also been stunned in the past few weeks by the dumbnification of Reliable Sources, CNN’s long-running program of media criticism. And did you see Professor Parker on C-Span this weekend?

Within that context, we were struck by Lowrey’s peculiar pair of statistics.

No, the apparent contradiction doesn’t exactly matter. But this peculiar presentation occurred on the front page of the Sunday New York Times.

The previous week, in that same famous space, we saw Susan Rice flatly misquoted again—and yes, she was flatly misquoted. In fact, we would say she was plainly misquoted in at least two different ways.

In our view, the dumbnification of Salon was the most striking media event of the past year. But good lord! There is a wider, wholly unremarked context within which that process occurred.

Tomorrow: Dumbnification is them. Can this be a good thing?

Let’s be more precise: What explains the highlighted part of Lowrey’s opening paragraph?
LOWREY: To many Americans, the war on poverty declared 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson has largely failed. The poverty rate has fallen only to 15 percent from 19 percent in two generations, and 46 million Americans live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate.
“46 million Americans live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate?”

On what journalistic basis was that statement included? Surely, few readers had any idea what that statement meant.

On what basis does the government decide that a household’s income is “scarcely adequate?” Few readers had any idea, and Lowrey never explained.

46 million American live in such households? What percentage would that be?

Presumably, few readers took the time to discover that it’s basically the same percentage Lowrey had already cited. On what journalistic basis was that statistic included?

That was Lowrey’s opening paragraph. The highlighted statement is very murky.

An editor should have cleaned it up. Does the world-famous New York Times still employ such aides?


  1. Dean Baker does a better job:


  2. Fifty percent of Howler readers agree with Rev. Somerby, and preaching to one dozen people whose intelligence is highly self overrated can be gratifying.

    Anybody not understand what I am flatly implying?

    1. Would a douchebag believe Somerby when he wrote this:

      "You have to be a functional illiterate to write a news report like that. There’s no point in reporting a “ten point gain” if you don’t make any attempt to explain how significant such a gain is."

      Somerby 12/19/13 "The World in Which We Actually Live"

      You think I have a beef? Imagine if Lowery had just referred to the percentage living in poverty and not made an attempt to show how significant that was by ennumerating the number of people that percentage comprised. She would have been called a functional illiterate by someone with a beef about New York Times reporting.

      There are a plethora of other examples I could cite where reporters are attacked for not following one figure in an article with another putting it into context. And that, my friend, is exactly what Lowery did in the highlighted words for which she is attacked.

    2. No, it is not what she did. If you were actually writing 46 million inorder to illustrate how many people 15% of the population comprised, you would word that sentence so that people understood you were not talking about two distinct things. You would say "15% of the population, 46 million people, live in near-poverty (which is defined as being...").

      These journalists write as if they were generating columns stream-of-consciousness and then never going back and reading, much less editing them once written.

      I think Somerby is correct that they don't really care about any of these numbers and thus don't think about what they mean. A good writer should put him or her self in the place of the reader via an act of empathy, thereby understanding what a reader might need to know and what questions might come to mind in the course of reading an article. When two figures don't seem to make sense, they should explain them. But, not caring about the content of anything they write, these journalists seem to be just trying to get words on paper and fill up space.

      You don't seem to care much about these things either. Given that you do not care, why are you here?

    3. "When two figures don't seem to make sense, they should explain them."

      I agree. What causes me to question the slavish defenders the nonsensical criticism of Somerby in this instance is his assertion and your repetition of the notion that the two figures don't seem to make sense. Are you and he really that dim?

    4. Boohoohoo, it's only Bob Somerby who cares....

      Maybe sock-puppetry should be limited to 1 reply per comment thread. Just an idea.

    5. Empathy in defense of Somerby is no vice. Douchebaggery in criticizing him is no virtue.

      When sock puppetry is outlawed only felons will have talking hands.

    6. Anon at 1:16: The two figures that don't make sense are not 15% and 46 million. They are that the poverty rate (15%) seems to increase to 16% when governmental subsidies are taken into account (e.g., food stamps, etc.). It seems like fewer people should be under the poverty line (meet the criterion for poverty) if benefits are added to their income, not more people. More people mean a higher % of the population is in poverty. Why does the poverty rate increase when benefits are included in income? The answer is in a footnote but that doesn't help us, nor does it help the readers of the Times article.

      You didn't read the article carefully enough to understand where the problem was. You leapt right to criticism of Somerby, who correctly pointed out that 46 million = 14.7% which can be rounded to 15%. He had no problem with those two numbers being contradictory. He took issue with the fact that they appear to be referencing two different things (as indicated by the word "and" in the sentence), not the same thing.

    7. Anon at 2:01

      "You didn't read the article carefully enough..."

      Has anyone else noticed that Somerby defenders often claim that those who criticize his work can't read or didn't read carefully.

      Read Sombery's Post from this line down:

      "Let’s be more precise: What explains the highlighted part of Lowrey’s opening paragraph?"

      The remainder of the post criticizes Lowery for the 15% and 46 million figures in that one paragraph, not the disparity between 15% and 16% which Somerby criticizes elsewhere.

      They are also the two figures used by the commenter to whom I was relying.

      But I didn't read carefully. I am a douchebag with the empathy of a damn reporter.

    8. "When sock puppetry is outlawed only felons will have talking hands."

      That's a good line.

    9. "To many Americans, the war on poverty declared 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson has largely failed. The poverty rate has fallen only to 15 percent from 19 percent in two generations, AND 46 million Americans live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate."

      It's the "AND" that is sloppy (caps mine). "And" tells us nothing about the relationship between the 15% and the 46 million figure. I don't know how the poverty rate is calculated. Maybe the poverty rate measures households whose incomes are INadequate rather than "scarcely adequate." I'm not as smart as the trolls around here, so I'm not sure. But the journalist in question could have cleared it up by writing:

      "The poverty rate has fallen only to 15 percent from 19 percent in two generations, MEANING 46 million Americans STILL live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate."

      There. Fixed.

    10. Let's be more precise.

      TDH criticizes two statements in the article. I'll paraphrase for clarity:

      1) The current poverty rate is 15%, and 46M have a "scarcely adequate" income.

      The criticism is that this sounds like two measures -- poverty (presumably an inadequate income) and borderline poverty ("scarcely adequate" income). But there aren't two measures: to a rounding error 15% and 46M are the same.

      2) The current poverty rate is 15% counting cash income, and it's 16% if you count non-cash "in-kind benefits," like food stamps.

      The criticism here is that this sounds contradictory -- a more expansive definition of income should make for fewer people below the poverty line, not more.

      Have I been accurate in my paraphrasing? Do you find either of the criticisms inapt? If so, why?

      If I'm reading you correctly, you think that reporting a fraction of the population without giving the absolute numbers that fraction represents is the same as giving the point gain on a standardized test without explaining the context of the gain.

      But "15% of the population" always means the same thing -- a bit more than one-seventh and a bit less than one--sixth. And the population count is a well-known figure, and one you can look up easily if you don't know it. A ten-point gain on a test means nothing unless you know at least the scale and standard deviation of the scores.

    11. Anon at 2:19 said: "Has anyone else noticed that Somerby defenders often claim that those who criticize his work can't read or didn't read carefully"

      I believe this is because the trolls deliberately use the technique of distorting the post's content in order to sow confusion in the comment section. Either that or they have socks for brains.

    12. Which of the two named commenters joining Anonymous at 1:04 PM in defense of Somerby reads the best?

      Is it Cacambo, who is confused by the word AND (Cacambo's emphasis in case those who don't read well missed or were confused by the use of lower case in the original quote)? He corrects this by rewrite:

      "The poverty rate has fallen only to 15 percent from 19 percent in two generations, MEANING 46 million Americans STILL live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate." Use of the word "meaning" instead of "and" certainly makes the sentence more understandle for the very simple of mind. For the not so simple of mind, I chose to highlight the other addition in all caps, "still." Were I Somerby, I would criticize that for implying that there were more than 46 million Americans living in poverty two generations ago. Or perhaps I would suggest Lowery meant 46 million of those living in poverty two generations ago are still at the bottom end of the economic ladder.

      Or is the best reader deadrat, who asks if he is reading me correctly by stating I am equating the two statistics Somerby criticized. No, you are not. I am stating the method of criticizing the New York Times is the same.
      I offered to give other examples. Here is one from the first of this year:

      "Did Chicago have a “staggering number of homicides” in 2012? Today, in its featured National report, that’s what the New York Times says.

      Presumably, one homicide is too many. But where does “staggering” come from in that peculiar assessment?

      DAVEY (continuing directly): In 2012, Chicago witnessed more than 500 killings, many of them shootings tied to gang rivalries in some of the toughest, struggling neighborhoods. As of Dec. 30, Chicago had reported 413 homicides, a 17 percent drop from the same period a year before and the fewest killings to date since 1965..."

      Later, we learn that “more than 500” means 506.

      Was that a “staggering” number of killings? Yes, it was, says the jealous god Script. On a journalistic basis, we’re not real sure why you’d say that. .....

      That said, how staggering was Chicago’s murder rate in 2012? As every reporter must know by now, Chicago’s murder rate wasn’t anywhere near the nation’s highest.
      (Note: If you do a quick Google, you’ll find an array of American journalists who don’t seem able to distinguish between murders and murder rates.)"

      Somerby 1/1/14

      Raw numbers are not enough. Must have rates. Wait. Rates are enough, don't confuse with raw numbers. Don't use descriptive phrases like "barely adequate." Because you might "flatly" mislead.

      Yes, the Somerby tribe must find the word "and" confusing because they read it on TDH. Yes, one type of criticism must be exactly equal instead of an example merely finding fault with the New York Times, one of Somerby's great God Scripts.

    13. Anonymous @6:03,

      Why is this so difficult? Certainly, the problem may lie with the receiver, which is to say me, a very "simple" reader. On the other hand, it's always worth considering that the problem instead lies with the transmitter, which is to say you.

      Obviously I'm inclined toward the latter. Especially since you apparently think my point is that you're "equating" the two statistics TDH criticized. But that's not what I wrote. I asked whether you thought either of the criticisms was inapt. Instead of answering, you wandered off into paragraphs about Chicago homicide statistics.

      So let's try again. First of all, does 15% in poverty (presumably those with an inadequate income) and 46M in borderline poverty (those with "scarcely adequate" income) sound like two groups or the same group? It sounds like two different groups to me. Is that because I'm simple or because the phrasing might be confusing? Do you think that "15% of the population" carries the same ambiguity as "a 10 point increase on a standardized test"? If so, why?

      Now onto the second criticism, independent of the first. Do you think it odd that 15% are in poverty on a cash basis alone, but one-percent more are in poverty if you include their "in kind" non-cash income. When you count more resources, shouldn't the percentage of those in poverty go down?

    14. Anon 6:03-

      I write for a living, and clarity benefits all readers, not just "the very simple of mind." Clarity is difficult to achieve and I often fall short. But I keep trying. I agree that my use of "still" could potentially cause problems. The NYT writers don't seem to be trying that hard, given their perch at the top of the journalistic food chain.

    15. Try this simple statement.

      In 2012, the official poverty rate was 15.0 percent. There were 46.5 million people in poverty.

  3. I believe that the poverty rate dropped from about 22% in 1964 to about 11% in 1980 just when Reagan took office.

    1. [QUOTE]>>>>> How has poverty changed over time?

      In the late 1950s, the poverty rate for all Americans was 22.4 percent, or 39.5 million individuals. These numbers declined steadily throughout the 1960s, reaching a low of 11.1 percent, or 22.9 million individuals, in 1973. Over the next decade, the poverty rate fluctuated between 11.1 and 12.6 percent, but it began to rise steadily again in 1980. By 1983, the number of poor individuals had risen to 35.3 million individuals, or 15.2 percent.

      For the next ten years, the poverty rate remained above 12.8 percent, increasing to 15.1 percent, or 39.3 million individuals, by 1993. The rate declined for the remainder of the decade, to 11.3 percent by 2000. From 2000 to 2004 it rose each year to 12.7 in 2004.

      Since the late 1960s, the poverty rate for people over 65 has fallen dramatically. The poverty rate for children has historically been somewhat higher than the overall poverty rate. The poverty rate for people in households headed by single women is significantly higher than the overall poverty rate.
      <<<<<[END QUOTE]

      [QUOTE]>>>>> ...The message of this chart — and one that comes through in just about every other comparison — is that the long stagnation of productivity that began in the 70s continued through the Reagan years and into the 90s. In fact, in the early 90s people were very depressed about America’s economy; remember the line, “The Cold War is over. Japan won”?

      The takeoff, both in productivity and in optimism, came only around 1995. I’m not giving Clinton credit for that takeoff; the truth is that we don’t know why it happened. But it definitely didn’t happen on Reagan’s watch.

      ...The truth is that economists who write about the mysterious slowdown and reacceleration of US productivity growth usually break history into three periods: 1948 to 1973, 1973 to 1995, and 1995 onwards. The point is that the big break, and with it the renewed sense of forward motion, didn’t come until the mid 90s.<<<<<[END QUOTE]

      Paul Krugman has spoken to this elsewhere suggesting the productivity growth rate went flat in 1973 because of reasons related to technological business cycles. Electrification of America and the auto and highway system had saturated the country by then, the benefits from those industries thereafter did not come from an expansion of their roles. The benefits from an expanding digital electronics industry, the next revolution, took a couple of decades to show up in national productivity numbers.

      See also. [LINK]

      [QUOTE]>>>>>The 1973 oil crisis started in October 1973, when the members of Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries or the OAPEC (consisting of the Arab members of OPEC, plus Egypt, Syria and Tunisia) proclaimed an oil embargo.

      In the Yom Kippur War of that year, Egypt and Syria, with the support of other Arab nations, launched a military campaign against Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar in order to regain Arab territories lost to Israel in the 1967 Six Day War....<<<<<[END QUOTE]

    2. Excellent comment, and I love having the reference links.

    3. CMike, you are assuming that the poverty rate is linked to economic conditions and not to government social policies for helping those in need. Even when there are not major legislative changes, small changes in eligibility rules can affect who gets assistance and whether they wind up in poverty or not. Assuming that Democratic presidents are more inclined toward offering more benefits, the fluctuation in the rates by presidency is explainable. Carter's economy was terrible but poverty was at its lowest. That's more likely because of Carter's attitudes toward those in need than his economic policies.

  4. Anonymous @ 7pm,

    I believe the poverty rate is linked to political power. When that power resides with the middle and working class the government will be active in eradicating poverty. When it resides with the malefactors of wealth issues causing poverty will not be addressed unless, in some way, they are exacerbated.

    How the New Deal/Great Society coalition broke down and the Reagan Revolution marked the Old Deal returned to power is a simple story to tell. It has to do with the fact that after the stock market crash in 1929 populists and progressives were johnny-on-the- spot with solutions to offer to deal with the Great Depression. As it turns out they weren't proposing anything of the magnitude necessary and it took WWII to fix things economically. Meanwhile, the rich were caught flat footed by the Great Depression and the early thirties were a public relations disaster for them. (They did not make that mistake after the 2008 crash. Of course, they got a big assist in pulling that off from Barack "let's look forward, not back" Obama.)

    Slowly through the fifties (from Buckley to GE and Reagan to the Birchers), the sixties (Scaife in the aftermath of the landslide Goldwater loss), and the seventies (the Powell Memo) the Right created an intellectual edifice that was poised to take advantage of any crisis that came along to reestablish its political dominance.

    The misunderstood by everyone at the time 70s stagflation was that crisis, and though it started roaring during the Nixon-Ford terms, it doomed the Carter presidency (along with the Iranian hostage crisis which was blamed in part on Democrats being McGorvernite hippie pacifists and the Edward Kennedy primary challenge from the left of the sitting Democratic president in 1980), ushering in Reagan years which we've yet to escape.

    In large part because the inflation of the 70s caused the nominal national debt to balloon there was a sense that fiscal policy (i.e. social spending=unsustainable deficits) was at the root of our economic problems- a notion that survives to this very day. The spectacular irony is that the national debt as a percentage of GDP fell during the Carter presidency and shot up during what the Right insists were the golden years of the Reagan presidency.