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 BagLowrey 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:
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.
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?