Part 2—Prologue to a journalistic semi-enigma: Starting on November 9, the mainstream press corps began reporting and discussing two sets of important events.
Some of these events occurred at Yale, a university in New Haven, Connecticut. Some of these events occurred at the flagship campus of the University of Missouri.
We've been struck by some of the ways those events have been reported and discussed within the mainstream press. But first, for one day only, consider a piece of prologue from New York magazine and the Washington Post.
In itself, this piece of prologue isn't hugely important. That said, it may tell us something about one of the players the press corps discussed, or failed to discuss, when it discussed the events at Yale and Mizzou.
That key player is youth. For our prologue about that key player, consider a blog post from New York magazine.
The report was posted by Nathan Pemberton, a young reporter who graduated from Florida State in 2009. Pemberton's report begins as shown below.
Our hypothesis will be the following. Only a fairly young person, at a fraught time, could have thought the highlighted claim made even a lick of sense:
PEMBERTON (11/16/15): Roughly 44 million Americans have an encounter with police each year. During these routine stops, in cars or on the street, black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to experience excessive force at the hands of police. The data, composed of public surveys collected and compiled by the Department of Justice, reveals that 75 percent of those stopped by police reported excessive force of some kind. Respondents defined excessive force broadly, ranging from verbal aggression (shouting, cursing, threatening) to physical force (grabbing, punching, kicking) and include severe responses (pepper spray, Taser usage, or officers pulling their guns out).Does it make sense to list "shouting" among examples of "excessive force" by police? We'd be inclined to say no.
That said, Pemberton had seemed to stop making sense before he offered that list. The young reporter had made a claim which seems absurd on its face.
According to Pemberton, roughly 44 million Americans have some kind of encounter with police in the course of the typical year. Here's the part which seems to make no sense:
According to Pemberton, 75 percent of those people report excessive force of some kind on the part of police! 75 percent!
Being wise and mature beyond our years, that statement struck us as crazy. It didn't seem crazy to Pemberton, or to editors at New York magazine, if any such people monitor posts by the magazine's young, inexpensive reporters.
Pemberton didn't provide a link to the DOJ study he was discussing. Instead, he provided a link to a news report from Sunday's Washington Post—a page A2 report which struck us as unusually flawed when we read it in our hard-copy Post on Sunday morning.
Pemberton didn't provide a link to the study in question. Then again, neither had Anu Narayanswamy, the somewhat older scribe whose name appeared on the Post's report, not even in the on-line version of her report.
We weren't surprised to see a weird claim emerge from the poorly-written Post report, which appeared on page A2 of the newspaper's Sunday edition. Yesterday, when we read that weird claim, we decided to check the DOJ study to see what it actually said.
Uh-oh! As pretty much anyone would have guessed, Pemberton's claim was off a factor of a whole giant amount. As the DOJ's first paragraph states, the actual figure is 1.2%, not the clownishly larger percentage New York magazine reported.
Below, you see the original source of Pemberton's claim, headline included:
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT REPORT (11/15): Police Use of Nonfatal Force, 2002-2011A coherence problem already exists in that first paragraph by the Justice Department. ("Of those with force?") But according to the DOJ, 1.2 percent of the "persons with police contact" reported the use of force by the police which they perceived to be excessive.
From 2002 to 2011, an annual average of 44 million persons age 16 or older had one or more face-to-face contacts with police. Of those who had contact, 1.6% experienced the threat or use of nonfatal force by the police during their most recent contact. About 75% of those with force (1.2% of persons with police contact) perceived the force as excessive...
At New York magazine, Pemberton reported the number as 75 percent. At this point, we'll repeat our hypothesis:
Only a very young person, at a fraught time, could have thought that number made sense.
Our hypothesis is crazily wrong, of course. Older people believe crazy claims too. This fact is proven every day, in and out of the press corps.
That said, we'll make this suggestion. At times which are fraught, young reporters, and other young people, may be inclined to believe improbable claims and reach judgments which may be a bit overwrought. They may be even more inclined to believe improbable claims than the older folk who are egging them on—though in saying that, we've started to put our thumbs on the scale concerning this week's topic, which is extremely important.
Full disclosure! In that news report in the Washington Post, Narayanswamy didn't say that 75 percent of people who had a police contact claimed excessive force. Still, her own reporting was so jumbled and so flawed that we suspected the source of Pemberton's peculiar claim before we clicked his link.
These kids today! The events at Missouri and Yale involve the reactions of people who are on the youngish side. Sometimes, young people are more perceptive than those who are older. Other times, though, they are not.
Are students at Missouri and Yale over-reacting to events at a time which is rather fraught? We don't know how to answer that question. In part, that's because we've been reading the work of the mainstream press corps.
What has been happening at Missouri? In our view, the New York Times and the Washington Post have done a fairly lazy job reporting that important topic.
Tomorrow, we'll start to review the basic reporting. From there, we'll move on to the op-ed pieces which appeared in last weekend's high-profile Sunday editions.
What has been happening at Yale and Missouri? For our money, the basic reporting has been rather weak, the commentary rather selective.
In the conservative world, the usual suspects have been tilting hard in the other direction, often in unpleasant ways. In the process, though, we'll have to say this: conservatives are being exposed to certain facts which are being withheld from everyone else.
Facts are being withheld from us. People, imagine that!
Tomorrow: We're not quite sure this made sense
What Narayanswamy reported: In the Washington Post, Narayanswamy didn't make the improbable statement Pemberton apparently thought he had read.
Still, her work struck us as very poor, from start to finish. This is the way she began:
NARAYANSWAMY (11/15/15): Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to experience nonfatal force or the threat of force from police, according to a new Justice Department study.The scribe omitted a basic fact. Can you discern what it was?
The study, which was released Saturday, found that an annual average of 44 million U.S. residents older than 16 had at least one face-to-face contact with police between 2002 and 2011. About 75 percent of those who had encountered force from the police perceived the force to be excessive.
Narayanswamy was writing at a highly fraught time. Her omission led to Pemberton's highly improbable claim. His claim made sense to New York magazine's editors, if such workers exist.