WHAT BAD POLITICS LOOKS LIKE: The Washington Post just flat gets it wrong!


Part 1—The science of disinformation:
The science of misinformation and disinformation is grievously underexplored.

This weekend, some misinformation hardened. From the progressive perspective, we’d have to say that it represents the latest case of bad progressive politics.

Alas! This misinformation originated within our own liberal tribe. The misinformation turned to stone in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Candidate Clinton had gone to Alabama to deliver a speech. In her address, she had possibly pandered and fawned a bit to a key part of the base.

As a result, the Washington Post published its first news report about those satellite driver’s license offices which got closed in Alabama. Right in its second paragraph, our own tribe’s preferred piece of misinformation hardened and turned to stone.

Vanessa Williams’ news report ran a full 1100 words. Hard-copy headline included:
WILLIAMS (10/18/15): In Alabama, Clinton rebukes governor on voting rights for black Americans

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Alabama on Saturday and waded into the national debate over voter rights, criticizing Republican leaders in this state and others for ID laws that she said have made voting harder for people of color and young people, two groups critical to her chances of winning the presidency.

Clinton slammed Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) for closing 31 driver-licensing offices in rural, mostly black areas, eliminating a source for the government-issued photo ID that is now required to vote in Alabama.

“This is wrong,” Clinton said. “Fifty years after Rosa Parks sat and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and John Lewis bled, it is hard to believe that we are back having this same debate” about voting rights for black Americans.
We haven’t found a transcript of Candidate Clinton’s speech. But right there in paragraph 2, Journalist Williams offered a flat misstatement of some basic facts.

Had Alabama actually “closed 31 driver-licensing offices in rural, mostly black areas?” Even allowing for the fuzziness of the word “areas,” no—it plainly had not.

By now, though, our tribe’s preferred misinformation had basically taken hold. This is the way Bill Barrow began his news report for the Associated Press, whose claims go all over the country:
BARROW (10/17/15): Near the heart of the civil rights movement, presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton roused black Alabama Democrats on Saturday with a pledge to champion voting rights and accusations that Republicans are dismantling generations of racial progress.

Clinton criticized Alabama's Republican governor, Robert Bentley, for closing drivers licenses offices in 31 counties, many of them majority African-American. Alabama requires photo identification to vote.

“This is a blast from the Jim Crow past,” she told about 700 people at a luncheon of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the largest caucus of the state Democratic Party.
For whatever reason, Barrow obscured the facts by using a highly imprecise term—“many.” (He also slightly misstated the number of counties in which an office was closed.)

This is what his report would have said had he chosen to be more precise:

“Clinton criticized Alabama's Republican governor, Robert Bentley, for closing drivers licenses offices in 30 counties, eight of them majority African-American.”

That would have been a substantially different statement. After fudging the facts in the way he did, Barrow linked his fuzzy claim to a statement about “Jim Crow.”

Were Williams and Barrow deliberately misleading or misinforming their readers? What roles did their editors play?

We can’t answer those questions. But in each of these cases, you’re looking at terrible journalism.

You’re also observing an under-explored branch of science—the science of misinformation. You’re observing the way misinformation can congeal, then harden and turns to stone.

The AP and the Washington Post have made several weeks of bogus statements official. At liberal and liberal-ish sites, the children are going to follow behind, pleasing the base with factual claims which are false or misleading.

It doesn’t take long for this to happen. Here is New York magazine’s Jonah Shepp, who offered a link to Williams’ news report:
SHEPP (10/18/15): When Alabama announced at the beginning of October that it was shutting down 31 driver’s license offices throughout the state, many Democrats and voting rights advocates suspected the state of engaging in voter suppression through other means. Many of the offices are in poor, rural, majority-black counties, and since Alabama began requiring ID to vote as of last year, opponents said the move would effectively disenfranchise many residents of these counties.
Question: Why would a journalist use the word “many” when he could use the word “eight?” The answer is part of the science of misinformation.

Just this once, let’s be fair! In an earlier blog post, Williams included some information which didn’t appear in her longer, hard-copy news report in the Sunday paper:

“Although driver licenses and state photo IDs for non-drivers are the most popular forms of identification, Alabama officials argued that there were plenty of other alternatives for residents. Each county has a registrar’s office, which issues free photo voter IDs and the secretary of state's office also operates mobile voter ID vans that visit locations around the state, including street festivals and facilities such as nursing homes. Residents also can get their driver licenses renewed at other state offices, as well as online.”

That’s a basic part of this story. It didn’t appear in Sunday morning’s full-length, hard-copy report.

More significantly, neither Williams nor Barrow offered the simplest type of information about the racial breakdown of the twenty-eight counties which lost their only satellite offices. They never specified that eight of those counties are majority-black. They didn't say that the total population of those counties was roughly 28% black in the 2010 census, virtually matching the figure for Alabama as a whole.

Instead, Williams made a factual statement which was flatly false. Barrow made a needlessly imprecise statement which we’d call highly misleading.

Was it a good idea to close these satellite offices? We can’t tell you that. We’re here to examine the journalism, not the Bama state government.

The journalism about this matter has been very bad. Over the weekend, our own tribe’s preferred misinformation hardened and turned to stone.

Shouldn’t liberals and progressives be happy to see our con prevail? Shouldn’t we applaud ourselves for playing a winning game of realpolitik?

Shouldn’t we divest ourselves of our tired old bourgeois morality—of our tired old, outmoded scruples concerning the need for the truth? Shouldn’t we pat ourselves on the back for doing what The Others have always done?

In our view, this game constitutes bad politics for our own glorious side. All week long, we’ll be explaining our reasons for saying that.

That said, let’s be honest this once. No matter what tribe you may be in, some folk simply prefer to lie, distort or mislead.

Getting away with a glorious lie? The age-old practice has always made our lazier players feel good! How good it feels to make the rubes swallow a bogus claim!

Tomorrow: Uh-oh! As seen in comments!


  1. Wow! Another week of the Great Alabama County Census Debate!

    In which more reporters are held accountable for what Candidate Clinton said!


    1. Are you stupid or something? Clinton is a politician. Reporters have a different job. Their job is to sort out truth and report facts. Those reporters are accountable for fact-checking whatever anyone says, including themselves.

      This repetition is obviously necessary for the likes of you. Although being willfully stupid is probably not curable.

    2. Of course! Politicans are blameless for what they say! It's the fault of those evil reporters who report it!

      But you know what? As few readers as this blog has, casual and otherwise, I wonder how many have or will click on to the seventh day in a row of this and will click right back off.

      Bob does have a way of beating expired equines, doesn't he?

    3. I am so tired of these trolls who only want to say bad things about preferred candidates here, pretending their incessant noise can ever change anyone's vote on a progressive blog.

  2. The closed offices remarks are in this video:

  3. In the Jim Crow era, Southern States had poll taxes. Was this discriminatory in intent or not? Now they make it harder for poor people through requiring photo ID's and then making it harder to get them. These things have only been happening since the Supreme Court essentially struck down the voting rights act. The basic facts are not changed if there are misstatements about the exact mechanism. Whatever his intent, Somerby is acting as an apologist for racism.

    1. I prefer to see this as an onslaught against Democrats because poor people, regardless of race, tend to vote Democratic. Because the demographics of this situation do not support your assertion that this is racist, you need to broaden your conception of the Republican strategy. They don't care whether they suppress white or black votes, as long as they keep Democrats out of office. Poor people will be inconvenienced most. Finding common cause across races is a more effective strategy for fighting plutocrats and also for fighting racists.

      Calling Somerby a racist for desiring more factual reporting doesn't seem fair when he has arguably done more to help black children have better lives than most of the commenters here (and I can say that without knowing anyone). Knee jerk reactions to Clinton's racial dog whistle (hardly subtle) aren't helpful either. I agree with Somerby that we cannot sacrifice truth to other political goals without becoming people we do not want to be.

    2. "The basic facts are not changed if there are misstatements."

      Nope, the facts aren't changed. Facts are stubborn that way.

      But what *are* the basic facts?

      Your casual slippage between "harder for poor people" and "racism" reveals your oh so noble intentions, and also betrays that you haven't the slightest grasp on what those "basic facts" actually are.

    3. "Calling Somerby a racist . . ."

      He/she didn't. He/she said Somerby was "acting like an apologist for racism" and he has been doing that for quite some time -- attempting to justify everything from Confederate flag-waving to rodeo clowns to shooting black kid in the street.

      Incidentally, if you read the link below to Hillary Clinton's op-ed in the Birmingham paper, that's no "dog whisle" she's using. She is flat out calling it racism.

    4. Thanks for your spot on responses at 12:25 PM and Thought Leader. The progblogs are ever in need of a lot more comments along those lines.

    5. Massive hair-splitting @2:22.

      Another attack on Somerby in the guise of support for voting rights? Maybe CMike is fooled.

    6. My mistake was not pointing out that this ID issue tends to inconvenience working class renters more so than home owners rather than just leave it that it affects poor people.

      All that said, though I'm white I'll say flat out that voting should be a central festive cultural activity for black people in this country because of a history that doesn't need to be reviewed here. The pillars of that community and their white progressive allies should spend a lot less time complaining about voter ID laws and a lot more time doing the hard work of seeing to it that blacks as a percentage of the total population should have a much higher voter turn out than citizens of other groups. If I recall correctly, blacks, who make up 12% of the total population, in the last three presidential elections were 11% of voters in 2004, 12% of voters in 2008, and 13% of voters in 2012. And the participation rate for blacks is lower than their local numbers for a lot of the city and county elections which determine how and by whom local communities are going to be policed.

      Meanwhile, registering people in the working class and the economic underclass should be job one of the Democratic Party. At the turn of the previous century urban political party machines were finding constituents jobs, filling their bins with coal, and getting people out of scrapes with the law in return for their support as voters on election day. These days with telecommunications and computers leaders in the Democratic Party spend a lot of their time moaning that getting people registered to vote and seeing to it they have an acceptable voter ID where needed is too daunting of an organizational task to tackle.

      One wonders if Democratic leaders have sort of mixed feelings about the prospect of more working class and members of the economic underclass citizens voting.

  4. "We haven’t found a transcript of Candidate Clinton’s speech" said Bob Somerby. Did he look hard for one? We don't know. We do know reports of Clinton's remarks make it sound very, very similar to an Op-ed piece submitted under her name to AL.com, the online version of the Birmingham News. Bob readers know the blogger is fasmiliar with this site, since in his series on this issue he has quoted frequently from columns posted there by Kyle Whitmire and John Archibald.

    Bob can't find a transcript of Clinton's remarks. But the content of the op-ed dealing with Alabama was posted in full in his own comment box oin Saturday. His readers attacked it saying its content indicated the writer had not read anything Somerby had written about the facts in this series. Of course the comment was posted as Anonymous without anyone indicating it was the words of Hillary Clinton.

    Bob can't find a transcript. But it took him until the seventh post in this series to mention Clinton by name when he knew Clinton issued a statement on this issue before Rachel Madddow spoke a word about it.

    And Bob still hasn't brought himself to tell his readers precisely what Hillary Clinton has put on her own campaign website and in an op-ed piece in Alabama.


    Oh, and Bobfans. One more mention that Clinton isn't a journalist and we will do a long "blast from Bob Somerby past" on what he did to President Obama over the 77% pay gap.

    1. "We insist that women receive full and fair reward for their work and that the nature of that work reflect a full and fair recognition of women's accomplishments. For me, it's a simple matter of wanting my daughters to have the same opportunities in life that my son will have. It is not merely a matter of women with the same positions as men getting lower pay, it is also a matter of women with the same merit as men getting lower positions. Women in almost all types of jobs make less than men."

      -- Al Gore, April 2, 1998

    2. Hillary Clinton is against Jim Crow. So are all the other Democrats, possibly excepting Webb. So what?

      Delving into the stats in Alabama to see whether they qualify as a solid example of modern Jim Crow is not Clinton's job. It is the job of Alabama reporters, Rachel Maddow and other journalists. If they then think Clinton was unfair to Alabama, they can say so.

      Somerby doesn't care who says what. He cares whether the stats justify the conclusions. Trolls ignore the stats and the conclusions in order to play a massive game of gotcha against Somerby -- because taking him down will...[do what?] -- here is where the underwear gnomes need to fill in the blank.

    3. Clinton issued a statement on this issue before Rachel Madddow spoke a word about it.

      Statement Hillary issued on Oct 2nd:
      Statement on Alabama License Office Measure Disenfranchising Voters

      What bothers you about that?

    4. Hillary Clinton said that the closing of the 31 offices is a "blast from the Jim Crow past.

      Don't pretend that she merely said that she is against Jim Crow. Bob doesn't like people who play fast and loose with the truth and disappear facts, and any day now he'll be all over Hillary for starting this hulabaloo,

      Just any day now.

    5. "I strongly oppose Alabama’s decision to close driver’s license offices across the state, especially in counties that have a significant majority of African Americans. Just a few years ago, Alabama passed a law requiring citizens to have a photo ID to vote. Now they’re shutting down places where people get those photo IDs. This is only going to make it harder for people to vote. It’s a blast from the Jim Crow past.

      "We’re better than this. We should be encouraging more Americans to vote, not making voting harder. As President, I’ll push for automatic voter registration for every American when they turn 18, and a new national standard of at least 20 days of early in-person voting in every state. And I’ll work with Congress to restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act.

      "African Americans fought for the right to vote in the face of unthinkable hatred. They stood up and were beaten down, marched and were turned back. Some were even killed. But in the end, the forces of justice overcame. Alabama should do the right thing. It should reverse this decision. And it should start protecting the franchise for every single voter, no matter the color of their skin."

      It's OK to say that if you're Hillary. But if you are Rachel Maddow? Bob will get you for that, and boy, will his fans be mad at you. Both of them.

    6. "One more mention that Clinton isn't a journalist and we will do a long "blast from Bob Somerby past" on what he did to President Obama over the 77% pay gap."

      Yes indeed. Bob went on for days about how Obama misled an entire nation.

      But you forget that his loyal fans reminded him that Obama was not a journalist, so Bob quickly apologized and stopped, vowing never to do it again.

    7. Anonymous October 19, 2015 at 5:09 PM

      That statement from Hillary's web site is perfectly fine. Her op-ed on al.com also perfectly fine.

    8. I think so too. But when Rachel Maddow repeated it, Rachel was the one who was lying about the effect of those office closures, not Hillary.

    9. @ 4:50 provided a link to Clinton's statement on October 2 and asked "What bothers you about that?"

      Quacker, please, follow the link and tell me what is wrong with it.

  5. Bob wrote: The AP and the Washington Post have made several weeks of bogus statements official. At liberal and liberal-ish sites, the children are going to follow behind
    Naturally, since the AP and the Washington Post are liberal or liberal-ish sites.

    This incident illustrates that Hillary is well-treated by the media, not badly treated as Bob claims. When Fiorina made a mistake about the specific source of the fact the Planned Parenthood harvested and distributed fetal parts, the media spent days focused on her lying. OTOH when Hillary made a false statement in support of a false narrative, the media reported as fact that her false statement was true.

    1. Well, David. You are proving the old saying that even a blind pig finds a truffle now and then.

      Yes, it does seem that the "media" -- whoever that is these days -- is surely taking what Hillary said at face value, then repeating it.

    2. And this somehow proves Hillary is not being mistreated by the press?

    3. Certainly not on this issue.

      As Bob has proven -- and with geometric logic -- Hillarry told a big, fat lie, and the press is letting her get away with it.

    4. mm -- Bob pointed out the lie: "Clinton slammed Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) for closing 31 driver-licensing offices in rural, mostly black areas." In fact, these closures were not in mostly black areas.

      And, Clinton's main point is false -- namley that these office closings are comparable to where "Rosa Parks sat and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and John Lewis bled". The office closings were not particularly focused on blacks.

    5. Follow along, mm. Bob is apparently only concerned about accusations of racism when they come out of Rachel Maddow's mouth, not Hillary Clinton's.

      And if you had been reading your "hero" who is "scrupulously honest" and "always right" you would know that Bob considers charges of racism in the Alabama office closings to be a big, fat lie.

      He said so himself. And he is "always right" and "scrupulously honest." You told me so yourself.

    6. David, one little problem. Clinton didn't say "mostly black areas". You are quoting the AP reporter, not Hillary Clinton.

      And secondly, you are misstating Clinton's main point. which is that what Alabama is doing is part and parcel of the overall republican strategy to suppress voting. That is indisputable.

      "Alabama isn't alone. Over the past few years, many states have passed laws that make voting harder. Since the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the situation has gotten even worse. And some people —including many Republican candidates for president—would keep pushing our country in this shameful direction." http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/10/hillary_clinton_alabama_remain.html#incart_river_mobileshort

      “Since the Supreme Court eviscerated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, many of the states that previously faced special scrutiny because of a history of racial discrimination have proposed and passed new laws that make it harder than ever to vote.”Hillary Clinton, June 4, 2015

      And finally, she is calling for universal and automatic voter registration, an ambitious proposal that will put a stop to this bullshit strategy of the republican party to suppress voting. And it's not just AA that the republican party targets,

      "Governor Bentley has offered the same excuses we've always heard to justify laws that disproportionately affect people of color—or, for that matter, low-income people, women, young people, and seniors."

      Now, where is the lie you claim Hillary Clinton spoke?

  6. Hopefully with the content on this blog, I can add to my insight, thank you
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