THE PROBLEMS WITH NOVELS: The candidate's rather selective account!


Part 4—Evading "the whole truth:"
Late at night, we gather the analysts and dream of research projects.

One project would involve the ability of Americans to name the various states.

Respondents would be shown a map of the fifty states. As on a typical U.S. map, the states would be yellow, pink, green and blue, just as they appear from the air.

On this map, though, there would be no state names. Instead, each state would have a number. Respondents would be asked to supply the names of the various states.

Among the Lower 48, we'll guess that Florida, Texas and California would be correctly identified by the highest percentage of people. That said, what percentage of people can identify a standout state like Florida? And how many people can identify Arkansas? We'd be curious about the results.

There would be no particular "point" to that research project. It would simply be a test of general "cultural literacy."

In the last year, though, we've imagined a research project which would have a bit of a point. This project would involve the frequency of fatal police shootings. It would draw on these important data from the Washington Post:
Victims of fatal police shootings by race, 2015
Whites: 494
Blacks: 258
Hispanics: 172
The Washington Post has performed a rare service in compiling those national data. In our imagined survey, the researcher would ask a question like this:
Possible research question:
According to a journalistic study, 258 black Americans were shot and killed by policemen last year. If you had to make an estimate, how many white people were shot and killed by policemen last year?
There might be better ways to ask that general question. Who knows? It might make sense to ask the question like this:
Possible research question:
According to a journalistic study, 258 black Americans were shot and killed by policemen last year. If you had to make an estimate, how many white people were shot and killed by policemen:

a) Approximately twice as many

b) Approximately the same number

b) Approximately half as many

d) Virtually none at all
There might be various ways to ask that general question. That said, we'd love to see what respondents would say.

Here's why:

We've been following the Washington Post's accumulation of data since some time last year. We recall being surprised when the general ratio of white-to-black fatal shootings began to emerge.

Specifically, we recall being surprised by the number of fatal shootings of whites. Twice as many whites were killed, as compared to the number of blacks? We recall being surprised by that fact. We recall thinking something like this:

When do you ever hear about policemen shooting white people?

Truly, we couldn't think of a case. In retrospect, it seems rather dumb. But we recall being surprised when that ratio began to emerge.

Who knows? Maybe other people are savvier than we were at that time. Maybe others would make a reasonable guess about the number of whites involved in such fatal shootings.

That said, we'd like to see the data! Our guess would be that many people would be way off if they had to guess that number. We'd love to see how many people would give some version of this answer:

"Virtually none at all."

Would many people give answers like that? If so, we'd quickly claim that their false belief may represent one of the problems with novels.

To what "novel" do we refer? We refer to the novel the press corps has compiled starting with the death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012.

Trayvon Martin wasn't shot by police, of course. (It's often said that he was shot by a "vigilante.") That said, Martin's death started a social/journalistic movement involving the fatal shootings of blacks by police.

It makes perfect sense to explore the question of police shootings. But as often happens in our culture, the "press corps" started writing a novel as this subject took hold.

What does the "press corps" do when it composes a novel—when it novelizes the news? The corps does several things:

First, the press corps is strongly inclined to pick and choose its examples.

We've learned a great deal about the shooting death of Michael Brown, as is completely appropriate. At the same time, we learned nothing about the shooting death of John Geer, whose death was disappeared.
This selective presentation of cases can, of course, be misleading.

The press corps may do something else when it starts composing one of its endless string of novels. It may fail to mention basic statistics which help define some overall state of affairs.

In this case, we've rarely seen reporters mention that two-to-one ratio of white-to-black shootings which emerged in the Post's statistics. We're starting to see that ratio mentioned just in the past week, most often by conservatives. But in our experience, it was rarely mentioned before.

Omission of data may enhance the power of a novel. On the down side, it may mislead us rubes.

There's something else the press corps has done in service to this particular novel. It has invented, embellished and disappeared facts about its selective examples.

In the case of specific police shootings, the mangling of basic facts has often been extreme. This mangling of facts about specific incidents has come from many quarters.

In the case of Michael Brown, our own liberal world was eager to avoid the findings of the Justice Department probe conducted under Eric Holder. Let's draw a quick comparison:

In the past week, conservatives directly attacked John B. Comey when he failed to reach a conclusion they desired. In the case of Michael Brown, we liberals simply ignored (or misstated) the factual findings with which Holder said he agreed.

They attacked Comey; we ignored Holder. In each case, we'd have to assume that people were misled.

To what extent have facts been mangled about specific cases? When a narrative gains great currency, the mangled facts may come from many quarters. Consider what happened on February 27 when Candidate Clinton won the South Carolina primary.

As Candidate Obama had done in 2008, Clinton was sweeping the Southern primaries on the strength of the black vote. When she gave her victory speech, she made some sensible remarks—and she gave a rather sketchy account of a high-profile shooting:
CLINTON (2/27/16): Breaking down all the barriers means we also have to face the reality of systemic racism that, more than a half a century after Rosa Parks sat and Dr. King marched and John Lewis bled, still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind. We have to invest in communities of color, reform our broken criminal justice and immigration system.

We have to guarantee opportunity, dignity and justice for every American. And tonight, I want to pay tribute to five extraordinary women who crisscrossed this state with me and for me.

Five mothers brought together by tragedy: Sabrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, shot and killed in Florida just for walking down the street; Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, shot and killed by someone who thought he was playing his music too loud in his car; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre, shot and killed by police in Milwaukee; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, choked to death after being stopped for selling loose cigarettes on the street; and Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas. They all lost children, which is almost unimaginable. Yet, they have not been broken or embittered. Instead, they have channeled their sorrow into a strategy, and their mourning into a movement. And they are reminding us of something deep and powerful in the American spirit.
Was that highlighted statement accurate? Is it accurate to say that Trayvon Martin was "shot and killed just for walking down the street?"

At best, we'd have to call that a highly selective account of the facts. In a fairer assessment, we'd have to say that Clinton's statement was basically inaccurate.

That said, we liberals prefer the story that way, and the mainstream press has tended to follow our lead in this general area. Feelings can be inflamed this way—and people can be misled.

Have people been misled in recent years by the press corps' treatment of police shootings? We would assume that the answer is yes. But that's where our research project comes in.

We'd love to see the American people asked the question we proffered above, the simple question about the number of fatal police shootings.

We've been exposed to a string of cases in which black people were shot and killed by police. Obviously, this is a serious topic. It deserves to be explored.

That said, it seems that roughly twice as many white people get shot and killed by police. But even a striking case like John Geer's failed to gain press corps attention.

People can get misled that way, and in the other ways we've mentioned. Once again, we'll close with a horrible question:

Had the killer in Dallas last week possibly been misled?

Tomorrow: Listing some problems with novels


  1. Is it accurate to say "twice as many white people get shot and killed by police?"

    In this case it may be technically accurate. We're starting to see that ratio mentioned just in the past week, most often by conservatives like Bob Somerby. But in our experience, it is missing something.

    Omission of data may enhance the power of a novel. On the down side, it may mislead you rubes.

    At best, we'd have to call that a highly selective account of the facts. In a fairer assessment, we'd have to say that Somerby's statement is basically misleading.

    Late at night one can only dream of better data, better analysts,and better novels.

    1. Are you going to be a jackass all your life?

    2. Are you going to salute Bob Somerby's half mast posts all his blogging days?

  2. I'd call Clinton's statement a racist lie. It's a lie, because (as Bob pointed out so well) the jury pretty much found that Martin was killed in self defense while he was bashing Zimmerman's head against the sidewalk.

    It's a racist lie because Hillary's falsehood was based on the races of Martin and Zimmerman. Had the races been reversed or if both were of the same race, Hillary wouldn't have told that tarradiddle.

    1. I wish Hillary didn't pander so much but she needs every vote she can get to beat that racist Trump. Hillary's racism won't result in bad outcomes for minorities in our society. Trump's most likely will.

    2. Sez David in Cal:

      "the jury pretty much found that Martin was killed in self defense while he was bashing Zimmerman's head against the sidewalk."

      The jury pretty much found Zimmerman was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

      But when you feel like throwing an R bomb, DinC you throw like a liberal rube.

    3. 12:37 -- There's a good case to be made that the exaggeration of police misdeeds against black people is harming all of us, especially blacks. This excerpt explains why:

      The virulent antipolice campaign that began with a now-discredited narrative about a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, has made police officers think twice before undertaking precisely the type of enforcement that led to that twenty-year crime drop. The Black Lives Matter movement proclaims that the police are a lethal threat to blacks and that the criminal-justice system is pervaded by racial bias. The media amplify that message on an almost daily basis. Officers now worry about becoming the latest racist cop of the week, losing their job or being indicted if a good-faith encounter with a suspect goes awry or is merely distorted by an incomplete cell-phone video.

      With police so discouraged, violent crime has surged in dozens of American cities, as we have seen. The alarming murder increase prompted an emergency meeting of the Major Cities Chiefs Association in August 2015. Homicides were up 76 percent in Milwaukee, 60 percent in St. Louis, and 56 percent in Baltimore for the year through mid-August, compared with the same period in 2014. Murder was up 47 percent in Minneapolis and 36 percent in Houston through mid-July....

      The irony is that the historic reduction of crime in the United States since the 1990s was predicated on police singling out African-Americans for their protection. Using victims’ crime reports, cops focused on violent hot spots; since black Americans are disproportionately the victims of crime, just as blacks are disproportionately its perpetrators, effective policing was heaviest in minority neighborhoods. The cops were there because they do believe that black lives matter.

      In the recent eruption of violent crime, the overwhelming majority of victims have been black...

    4. You didn't make the "good case." You stated something that was a falsehood while you accused Clinton of lying. You symbolize the hypocrisy of this blog and its commentariat despite your contrarian views to the mainstream expressed here.

      You called Clinton's statement a racist lie?
      Hell she did not go half far enough.

      He was targeted as an "asshole who always gets away" by an armed neighborhood "watchman" not just because he was walking down the street, but because he was walking down the street while black at the time the armed gunman drove by.

      Don't back off your lie and try and change the topic. You spouted it. Own it.

  3. Right, you take this a step further and convert the totals to percentages, then compare those percentages to the representation of whites and blacks in the general population. Liberals stop there. Conservatives go on and point out that because blacks account for a greater percentage of crime convictions, they will encounter police more frequently and in different contexts and thus should be expected to have a higher percentage of shootings than their representation in the overall population would predict, because of that higher crime rate. Liberals then explain that the higher crime statistics for blacks represent bias in the criminal justice system, not solely higher crime among those in poverty. Some BLM members take this a step further and attribute ALL police activity to bias and harassment, racial profiling, excusing any extra-legal behavior by members of the black community. That position frustrates conservatives and bewilders everyone else, including white liberals who want to be supportive of BLM. It takes a lot of white guilt to see Sandra Bland's death as the fault of the police.

    Late at night I dream of better trolls.

    1. Troll, dreamer, let's do Bob's research on you.

      Which is more accurate to blame:

      Police for Sandra Bland's death

      Liberal World for thousands of dead in Iraq?

    2. I blame the Nader voters for Iraq. I will blame the Bernie voters if Hillary is defeated.

      Sandra Bland died because she was depressed and had no support from her friends and family to help her cope with the latest of a long series of screw ups.

      No mystery in either situation.

    3. In reviewing the Post’s date, wouldn’t you thing that the people shot by the police are in the bottom 20% of the economy? Focusing only on race may leave out the other, larger grouping. Again, I would think, police shoot poor people at a rate much higher those other economic groups. Maybe instead of Black Lives Matter, there could be a Poor Lives Matter?

    4. But if there were a Poor Lives Matter, that group could propose solutions that would actually help, and make our nation better for all. Instead we get to yell at the racists, and go home happy, having done nothing.

      Sure you could put harsher anti-racist laws on the books. How many people would benefit? You need a willing prosecutor to file charges against a police officer, and then you are just talking about punishment of a certain kind of evil cop. Is this really going to help us climb out of racist attitudes, punishing a handful of really bad actors each year?

      What if we had a real government jobs program that paid a fair wage. Private industry would have to compete with those opportunities. Tens of thousands (maybe more) of black families would gain the security of a decent job. Isn't that where we really want to be?

    5. The real government jobs program that pays a fair wage would of course also be bound to the new $15 federal minimum wage. Now you need to find jobs that are actually worth that number for the $15 wage to be "fair". What can a low-skilled young person with a criminal background do that is worth $15/hr to anyone? Probably something like trash picking, which is a fine way to enter the workforce, but the government can only employ half the number of trash pickers at $15/hr than they could for $7.50/hr. And so the democrats for all of their good intentions lock out half the people from the workforce that they pretend they are helping. Oh well, just collect your welfare and run your crime in your own neighborhoods, wouldya?

    6. Generally, welding. Always in high demand and pretty high paying.

    7. Financial services executive. That industry doesn't care if you break the law, in fact, it's encouraged through compensation and bonuses.

  4. Possible research question:

    Police shootings of civilians has been in the news recently. In 2015 which of the following statements about fatal police shootings in 2015 do you think are true?

    Black people are two and a half times more likely to be shot dead by police than other Americans.

    Journalists report two times more fatal police shootings than the FBI actually recorded.

    There are 8 times as many crazy old white men over 45 shot by police than any other group that age.

    1. Are you trying to hide, Ms. Pigeonhole?

    2. True/false questions a bit too tricky for you?

    3. You can tell a troll -- he is the guy who thinks making jokes about people being shot is funny.

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