Part 3—The candidate’s fourth button: Friend, are you intrigued by the science of journalistic misstatement?
Are you interested in the science of false and misleading journalistic claims and portrayals? In the science of cherry-picked facts? In the science of bogus journalistic portrayals designed to serve partisan ends?
If you’re interested in that science, the case of the Alabama satellite DMV closings provides a fantastic case study. Warning to liberals and progressives:
In this particular case, the bogus statements and portrayals have largely been performed by journalists within our own liberal tribe!
As such, these bogus presentations create a fascinating case study of horrible pseudo-liberal journalism. But we also think they constitute a case of very bad liberal politics.
If you’re interested in this science, let’s state a basic premise. When a pleasing tribal claim gets started, there will be a tendency for journalists to embellish, misstate and distort the facts which drive the pleasing claim.
Sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, journalists will tend to misstate basic facts to make an alleged offense worse. Within the literature, this widely observed tendency is known as “The candidate’s fourth button,” for reasons we’ll note below.
That said, let’s return to the case of the satellite DMV closings. Consider an account of this matter which appeared last Saturday in The Hill, a prestigious insider D.C. daily which “has the largest circulation of any Capitol Hill publication.”
A journalist sent us this account, wondering if there was anything to it. Here’s how the news report started:
FERRIS (10/17/15): Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton on Saturday accused Alabama lawmakers of advancing “discriminatory” laws to roll back voting rights, as she looks to shore up support with black voters.Say what? It’s certainly true that Alabama closed 31 satellite offices. That said, is the highlighted statement true?
In her first visit to Alabama as a presidential candidate, Clinton elevated her call for voting rights as she condemned the state’s decision last week to close 31 driver’s license offices. Nearly all of the offices were in predominantly black neighborhoods.
She urged Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and his Republican-controlled legislature to keep the offices open, and “not just for one day a month."
“Nearly all of the offices were in predominantly black neighborhoods?” That sounded bad—extremely bad. The governor’s racism was growing!
Governor Bentley’s racism was growing—but was that claim actually true? We had seen no primary source which made any such claim.
Incomparably, we emailed an editor at The Hill, scientifically seeking a source for the claim. We received a link to this site, where we encountered the first four paragraphs from a TPM report:
SNEED (10/1/15): What happens when a state with a tough voter ID law suddenly makes it much harder for minorities to get driver's licenses? We are about to find out in Alabama.According to the TPM report, Bama had “suddenly made it much harder for minorities to get driver's licenses.” The journalist cited several accurate statements from the John Archibald column which launched a thousand scripts. The statement which came closest to the one in The Hill was this:
Facing a budget crisis, Alabama has shuttered 31 driver’s license offices, many of them in counties with a high proportion of black residents. Coming after the state recently put into effect a tougher voter ID law, the closures will cut off access—particularly for minorities—to one of the few types of IDs accepted.
According to a tally by AL.com columnist John Archibald, eight of the 10 Alabama counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters saw their driver’s license offices closed.
“Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed. Every one,” Archibald wrote.
“Alabama has shuttered 31 driver’s license offices, many of them in counties with a high proportion of black residents.”
That statement included two imprecise terms—“many” and “high proportion.” A journalist who wanted to speak a bit more precisely could have made this statement:
“Alabama has shuttered 31 driver’s license offices, eight of them in counties with a majority of black residents.”
That would have been a more precise statement. But nothing in the TPM report justifies The Hill’s paraphrase, in which “nearly all” the 31 offices were located “in predominantly black neighborhoods.”
Rather plainly, that statement is false. But dear lord, it feels so good!
As lovers of science, let’s review the road we took to that statement:
First, Archibald penned a column which included a selective collection of facts. He focused on office closings in a set of eight counties, counties which are majority black and are generally very small.
He didn’t detail the office closings in the other 23 counties. Many of those counties are larger, and are more heavily white than Alabama as a whole.
Archibald skipped something else. He didn’t mention the overall population of the 30 affected counties, or of the 28 counties which lost their only office. In each case, the overall population of the affected counties is a close match for the population of the state as a whole.
For our money, Archibald’s presentation was unwisely selective. At TPM, the selective presentation continued. It was helped along by a murky statement about “many” of the affected counties—and it featured a stirring statement which only mentioned the inconvenience to “minorities.”
No inconvenienced whites need apply!
TPM made no attempt to place Archibald’s statements in a wider factual context. Two weeks later, along came The Hill, and a murky statement was “improved,” as the scientists say.
Sure enough! We went from “many” offices being shuttered “in counties with a high proportion of black residents” to a more sweeping claim—the claim that “nearly all” the shuttered offices were located “in predominantly black neighborhoods.”
That is a much more sweeping claim. We'd seen no one make it before.
Within the literature, this familiar “improvement” of basic facts is referenced in an unusual way. This familiar practice has long been referred to as “the candidate’s fourth button.”
Here’s why the experts do that:
In the fall of 1999, an earlier bunch of national journalists were conducting a propaganda campaign. As part of this campaign, they were pretending to be disturbed by every possible aspect of Candidate Gore’s deeply troubling wardrobe.
His boots, his suits, his polo shirts, the height at which he was hemming his pants—every aspect of the candidate’s wardrobe was said to show us how fake and “inauthentic” he was. The problem even extended to the number of buttons on his suit jackets:
What was supposed to be wrong with three-button suits? In a performance which was crazy even for him, Chris Matthews seemed to claim that Gore’s three buttons constituted a smarmy signal to female voters, like the buttons sailors wear on the front of their pants.
Brian Williams advanced the same general theme concerning the candidate’s polo shirts. In February 2000, the repellent climber grew confused, complaining about the candidate’s troubling three-button sweaters.
Accidents happen when people like this go for the gold of Jack Welch.
In November 1999, one major pundit invented Gore’s fourth button. In a disgraceful performance on MSNBC’s Rivera Live, Arianna Huffington took out her needle and thread and sewed that button on:
HUFFINGTON (11/9/99): When you are talking about a consultant that you bring on to give opinions on how to dress and whether you’re an alpha male and how do you become a beta male—Gore had worn no four-button suits. Meanwhile, “It’s just not the way most American males dress?”
Frankly, you know, what is fascinating is that the way he’s now dressing makes a lot of people feel disconnected from him. And there was this marvelous story in one of the New Hampshire papers saying, “Nobody here—nobody here in Hanover, New Hampshire, wears tan suits with blue shirts.” You know, it's just—
And buttons—all four buttons! You know, it's not just—it's just not the way most American males dress.
At the time, the pundit corps was saying and insinuating that the candidate wasn’t sufficiently masculine. After all, Al Gore hired a woman to teach him how to be a man! In line with this repellent theme, Arianna’s first statements in that passage referred to Naomi Wolf, who was relentlessly slimed all through the month of November.
(People are dead all over the world because Arianna did this. In fairness, she was still building her brand.)
Despite making a lot of people feel disconnected from him, the candidate went on to win the New Hampshire primary. But from that day to this, experts on American journalism refer to the familiar practice of “improving” accurate facts by a whimsical name. They call it “Gore’s fourth button.”
Our liberal world has been sewing fourth buttons with respect to these office closings. Once again, let’s review one specific chain of improvements:
John Archibald presented a selective set of facts in a local column. That said, he specifically cautioned against the assumption that the office closings were motivated by race.
One day later, a young scribe at TPM ignored those words of caution. She fashioned a rather murky claim about where “many” of the offices had been closed. She said the closings “suddenly made it much harder for minorities to get driver's licenses,” ignoring the much larger number of whites who were similarly inconvenienced.
Two weeks later, an even younger scribe at The Hill sewed on that fourth button. Readers were told that “nearly all” the office closings occurred “in predominantly black neighborhoods.”
Simply put, there is no source for that claim. Finally, we had a statement which was flatly false.
Let’s be fair! Aside from Archibald, each reporter who improved the facts is quite young. The TPM scribe graduated from GW in 2011. The reporter at The Hill graduated from Georgetown just last year.
Their editors are older, of course—but they seem to be oppressively absent, like Ingmar Bergman’s God. We’ll guess that Josh was off somewhere counting his barrels of cash.
At any rate, the governor’s racism has kept getting worse as we’ve played this familiar old game. Ironically, Archibald told the horrific Rachel Maddow this week that he now believes that the office closings didn’t stem from a racial motive.
We can’t tell you if he’s right. We can tell you what the overall data are, as opposed to the cherry-picked numbers which help us advance our tribal story.
Sewing that button can be good fun, but there’s one basic problem—the other side can see what we’re doing! This produces very bad politics, not that there’s any obvious sign that our leaders actually care.
Why do we say this is bad liberal politics? Tomorrow, we’ll finally start to explain. We’ll start with what happened in comments.
Tomorrow: It happened in comments
This is what The Crazy looks like: The pundits pounded the candidate’s wardrobe for months. At the end of November—“the month of Wolf”—Marc Fisher offered these pensées in his weekly column in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine:
FISHER (11/28/99): [W]hen Al Gore sneaks around and spends $15,000 a month to hire an oddball like Naomi Wolf, a controversialist who campaigns against the tyranny of the beauty culture and then plasters soft-lit glossies of herself and her perfectly teased hair all over the Internet and on her book jackets, we have two choices: We can say Gore's a good man who's been duped by over-eager aides, or we can say this is a man who does not know himself, a man who is unknowable, unreadable and therefore not fit to be president.There was no evidence that Naomi Wolf had told Gore what to wear. Two of her three “pop philosophy” books had been chosen by the New York Times as “Notable books of the year.”
A person who makes her living by writing pop philosophy about sex tells a man who would be president of the United States that he must be a different kind of man, that he must be more assertive, that he must wear a brown suit of a sort that is alien to virtually every American. And he says, “Okay.”
To call him unreadable is to be charitable.
The candidate’s one brown suit was not “of a sort that is alien to virtually every American.” This column, like barrels of work from this time, was well over the line into the realm of The Crazy.
The liberal world accepted all this for two years. As a result, people are dead all over the world—and your favorite liberal stars of the era are fat, well off, quite happy.
You can still see them on Our Own Channel. They’ll be speaking with other folk of their general ilk.