THE PROBLEMS WITH NOVELS: The New York Times has a new anecdote!

FRIDAY, JULY 15, 2016

Interlude—No data need apply:
Having the minds of overgrown children, our major journalists tend to work from script.

From their scripts, they construct their novels—their novelized accounts of the news. Many problems can and do result from this common group practice.

Many of their favorite novels deal with issues of "character."

For example, they often help us determine who The World's Biggest Liar is. In 1999 and 2000, The World's Biggest Liar was Candidate Gore.

To make this novel work, they invented a string of lies by Gore, then insisted that he had told them. This produced a convincing novel—and sent George Bush to the White House.

Routinely, they also help us identify The World's Most Honest Person. Currently, the most honest person is of course Comey the God.

In past iterations of this novel, a range of unlikely people have been crowned as The World's Most Honest Person—Gennifer Flowers, Judge Starr, Paul Ryan, Candidates Bradley/McCain.

Have the children in our upper-end press corps ever been right in their novelized judgments about character? Normally, these novels tend to blow up in their faces. But so what? Having the minds of overgrown children, they just start composing the next one!

Some of the press corps' favorite novels have involved matters of substance. One such novel involves the way nothing has worked in the public schools, what with our heinous public school teachers and their infernal unions.

Reams of data have been disappeared to keep this treasured novel afloat. But then, how long did they maintain the script about the way the Social Security trust find was "just a bunch of worthless IOUs?"

In the past four years, the children have been composing a novel about fatal shootings by police.

That's an important topic, of course. But problems can and do result when the children of the corps compose their childish novels. In this morning's New York Times, we get the latest textbook example of the truly pitiful way this pitiful process works.

For starters, bless their hearts! Presumably, Rojas and Schmidt (and their unnamed editor) were doing their best when they composed the remarkable, pitiful news report which stands as the featured report in today's National section.

(Rojas is six years out of college; Schmidt seems to have graduated in June. For this reason, we'll attribute the peculiar aspects of their report to their unnamed editor, if any such person exists.)

(In fairness, the youth and inexperience of the scribes helps keep labor costs down.)

Accompanied by three photographs, the news report eats the bulk of page A12, the first page in today's hard-copy National section. The report runs roughly 1200 words. It appears beneath this headline:

"Latinos Seek More Public Scrutiny Of Their Encounters With the Police"

Rojas and Schmidt were reporting about fatal shootings of Hispanics by police. As they start, they report an intriguing claim—Latino activists think these shootings have been under-reported:
ROJAS AND SCHMIDT (7/15/16): The sheriff's deputies arrived at the home in San Antonio on a call that a woman had been injured in a domestic dispute. A bystander started recording a video as they pursued a shirtless man armed with a knife outside the home. Though taken from a distance, the video seemed to show the 41-year-old man, Gilbert Flores, raising his arms as the deputies opened fire, killing him.

The video appeared on television, and local officials opened an investigation. But the case, which took place last year, has drawn limited national attention—a stark contrast with the fatal police shootings of black men in recent days in Louisiana and Minnesota, which have ignited protests and calls for reform around the country.

To some Latino advocates, it is just one example of how the killings of Latinos in encounters with the police do not generate the same level of scrutiny, outrage or discourse as the fatal shootings of blacks.
Flores was shot and killed on August 31, 2015. The videotape is remarkable.

(For a fuller set of tapes from the case, you can just click here.)

Truly, the videotape is remarkable. That said, very few people have ever heard of Flores, who had apparently assaulted his wife and his 18-month-old daughter that day, precipitating a call to police by his mother.

In real time, the New York Times did news reports about the shooting on three successive days (September 1-3). According to Nexis, Flores' name hadn't appeared in the paper again until today. The shooting rated about 100 words in the hard-copy Washington Post on September 3.

According to Nexis, Flores name was last mentioned on TV on September 4. His name has been mentioned exactly once on prime time programs on MSNBC, the "cable news" repository for all known moral greatness.

(Lawrence O'Donnell did a segment on the shooting on September 2, after which the topic disappeared.)

The videotape of the shooting of Flores is truly remarkable. Despite this fact, the case has drawn virtually no "national attention."

According to Rojas and Schmidt, advocates are saying that the national press pays little attention to fatal shootings by police if the victims are Hispanic. There's almost certainly merit to that claim. You see, the novel the children have been composing involves fatal police shootings of blacks.

That is a very important topic. But as the children have pursued that story-line, they have tended to leave all other fatal shootings behind.

The children typically work that way. Problems do result.

So far, Rojas and Schmidt were standing on firm ground. But just like that, the crazy seemed to worm its way into their report!

In paragraphs 5 and 6, they weirdly offered what's shown below. We're going to blame this on their editor, if such a person exists:
ROJAS AND SCHMIDT: There is no federal clearinghouse that tracks all police-related killings, criminal justice researchers say, so it is difficult to quantify how many Latinos are killed in encounters with officers. That has left advocates to rely largely on anecdotal evidence. Even with jurisdictions that include Hispanic or Latino as an option in statistics, the numbers can be unreliable; it is not uncommon for people to be incorrectly classified as white or black.

''You don't know if the tick box is accurate or not,'' said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina who researches police shootings and called the lack of a national database a ''national embarrassment.''
Ignore the somewhat fuzzy passage about the way people get "classified" in various data sets. Instead, note the claim we've highlighted there—the claim that it's hard to "quantify how many Latinos are killed in encounters with officers," forcing advocates to rely on "anecdotal evidence."

Is it hard to quantify the number of Latinos? Granted, there's no federal database, just as this news report says. (Comey the God has roared with anger about this statistical shortfall.)

There's no federal database. But just last year, the Washington Post undertook that very act of quantification! And as everyone in the press corps knows, the Post was awarded a Pulitzer prize this spring for performing that valuable service.

That valuable service produced the quantification we've been posting all week. For the Post's complete data, click here:
Victims of fatal police shootings by race, 2015
Whites: 494
Blacks: 258
Hispanics: 172
As those nightclub "comics" might say, they've got your quantification right there! As everyone on the planet knows, the Washington Post won a Pulitzer prize for creating those basic statistics!

Correction! Everyone on the planet knows that unless they subscribe to the Times.

In today's featured news report, Rojas and Schmidt never mention the quantification which was performed by the Post. They never offer any other attempt at quantification.

Their readers must continue to bumble along in a world where no data exist, a world where no one has any idea how many people get shot and killed in such encounters.

What a remarkable journalistic decision! The Post's data aren't perfect, of course; no data set ever is. Nor do the data answer any ultimate questions about the conduct of the nation's police—the vast majority of whom never shoot or kill anyone at all, let alone in the manner depicted on the Rojas videotape.

The Post's data aren't perfect—but they do exist, and they won the Pulitzer prize! Despite or because of that fact, the New York Times disappeared them.

The analysts reverted to their thousand-yard stares as they read the Times report, in which the Times decided to keep this important topic Totally Anecdotal. And let's not ignore the other decision the New York Times made today.

Good God! In the wake of Professor Fryer's new study, even CNN has started discussing the possibility that sometimes people who aren't black get shot and killed by police.

On CNN this week, they've even mentioned the case of John Geer, who was shot and killed by Fairfax County police as he stood in the doorway of his home in the Washington suburbs. In these moments, CNN has told its viewers that white people get shot and killed by police too, sometimes in very weird circumstances.

Those valuable data from the Post provide a way to start discussing such facts. And yes! According to the Washington Post, it isn't hard to quantify how many Hispanics got shot and killed by police!

A second fact is also quite clear in the Post's data base. A lot of whites get shot and killed by police officers too!

In this morning's report in the Times, the Post's statistics are never mentioned. In the process, readers are again denied a basic fact:

A lot of whites get shot and killed! In fact, twice as many as blacks!

Those basic Post data can only provide a starting point for a real discussion of this topic. But in the Times, subscribers aren't even given that!

Subscribers aren't even allowed to know that provisional data exist. Times subscribers are left to wander in a world which is totally anecdotal.

In recent years, the New York Times has been deeply engaged in composing one of its latest novels. That novel has been almost wholly anecdotal.

No statistics or analysis have had to apply! Often, the anecdotes have been made more thrilling through the use of bogus "facts."

Today, a new anecdote is supplied. Incredibly, but typically, the Times doesn't go beyond that!

Coming Monday: We list at least three possible problems with the current novel

A point of fairness: As best we can tell, the New York Times did a decent job this Tuesday morning reporting Professor Fryer's new research. To read that report, click here.

Bui and Cox seemed to do a careful job explaining the different kinds of questions Fryer's study pursued. They also stressed the limitations of the study's findings.

On CNN, Fryer's study has been used as a way to widen the current discussion of police shootings, a very important topic. This morning, though, the Times slides back into its favorite brine—into the familiar ooze of anecdotes and novels.

At the Times, it's anecdote all the way down. The Times is aware of no facts!


  1. There are some classification problems with Hispanics due to overlapping of categories. For example someone can be of both African and Hispanic heritage, especially if Puerto Rican. In the West, a Hispanic surname doesn't guarantee Hispanic ethnicity due to intermarriage across subcultures. And then there is boxer Carmelo Alvarez who is red-headed, light-skinned and looks Irish but was born in Mexico. When someone checks the box for a deceased shooting victim, they can get it wrong. The Hispanic community has long struggled with census undercounts and odd federal categories resulting in important lawsuits, so this is a valid concern independent of the reporters failure to note the Washington Post database. The numbers need to go into that database properly. Anyone Hispanic knows that their racial/ethnic designation on forms is fluid.

  2. Some say race is a social construct. They could be right.

    1. That is a good line of retreat when it's clear the press are not doing their job but you're not inclined to admit it.

      On the one hand, we all simply /must/ admit, the police are using their hunting licenses in what we're often told amounts to an "open season" on being black.

      On the other hand, there is some data, at which point we lamely realize "race is a social construct."

    2. Back in the 1920's we used to refer to Italians and Germans and Irish as different races. That was pre-DNA. Post-DNA we know that there is no constellation of genes or traits that uniquely identifies someone as a member of one or another "race." In that sense, there is no scientific basis for the concept of race. These are social categories, formed like most cognitive categories, around prototypical examples and vague definitions that yield fuzzy boundaries and indistinct membership. Race is a social construct arising out of cognitive processes that define a bunch of different groupings, such as pets, tools, political parties and kinds of games. Gender (sexual identity) is another category whose boundaries are being recognized as less distinct than formerly thought.

      So, yes, race is a social construct. That doesn't mean it doesn't matter or isn't real in people's minds.

    3. Other items not mentioned in the Times about the social construct.

  3. The WaPo stats speak of all police shootings in 2015. Maybe 80 percent of the whites were killed while engaging police in a desperate shootout while 80 percent of the blacks were killed while feeding pigeons. You can't tell from the numbers.

    Looking on the bright side of life, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, only 130 officers were slain while on duty during the year in question.

    Looks to me like the cops are winning.

    And lest we forget, 27 K9s lost their lives that selfsame year, nearly half from heat exhaustion. I haven't read where any blacks died last year from being left in a hot police car.

    But then, I'm a NYT subscriber.

    1. The Washington Post gives a brief synopsis of each shooting incident.

  4. HRC says "radical jihadists" while appearing with Bill O'Reilly. HRC still can't bring herself to identify the terrorists as radical Islam, but prefers the oxymoron radical Jihad. Is there a moderate Jihad? O'Reilly didn't call HRC out on this or ask her what she means by "launching an intelligence surge." HRC needed an intelligence surge before she decided to set up her private email server in her Chappaqua basement.

    1. Let's put everyone who's wife leaves them on the Watch List.

  5. For two decades Bob Somerby has been constructing a novel. And it grows more bitter as it gets more repetitive.

    That is why today's post, ostensibly about press coverage of shootings by police, had to begin with the obligatory plight of poor Al Gore, beloved ex-bunkmate of Bob Somerby during Bob's fondly remembered (and often blogged about) college days. And don't ask what happens when you Google the phrase Bob turns to next, Infernal Teacher's unions, before cuffing aside young people working as reporters as his lead into the topic at hand.

    Yes, poor Bob has to suffer the work of children in covering the press. And it makes his only current friends (imaginary children who study/work/sleep in an imaginary place) cry.

    1. Learning from Our TrollsJuly 15, 2016 at 4:24 PM

      This, fellow trolls, is how you do it!

      When, as usual, you have no defense of your press on the merits, you work the margins rather than the argument at hand.

      Does the press ignore facts it has in hand?

      Fuck that debate (call it "ostensible" for cover) -- the real work as always is on the verbal tics of the (bitter! friendless!) blogger.

    2. Obviousl;y 4:24 didn't learn the facts Bob disappeared himself in his fourth of this thus far five part series.

      Say, did you spot someone doing a rough word count?

  6. At times like these, there are dangers both in overreacting and in underreacting to polling fluctuations. Our models are doing the best they can, but there’s inherently more uncertainty when the news cycle is fluid, versus when it’s relatively stable. It may be mid-August before the race settles into more of a steady state.

  7. " Musings on the mainstream 'press corps' and american discourse."

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