Times opens with "dubious," eventually cops to "false!"

MONDAY, JULY 20, 2020

Why would a newspaper do this?:
In this morning's New York Times, Katie Rogers handles the news report about President Trump's latest astonishing interview.

We refer to yesterday's interview with Chris Wallace. During the interview, Trump said that he has "heard" that we have the best coronavirus mortality rate in the world.

That's what the commander-in-chief has heard! The interview was marked by other such embarrassments.

Below, you see the first four paragraphs of the Times' report on the interview. We're going to highlight two key phrases. Why would a newspaper do this?
ROGERS (7/20/20): An agitated President Trump offered a string of combative and often dubious assertions in an interview aired Sunday, defending his handling of the coronavirus with misleading evidence, attacking his own health experts, disputing polls showing him trailing in his re-election race and defending people who display the Confederate flag as victims of “cancel culture.”

The president’s remarks, delivered in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” amounted to a contentious potpourri more commonly found on his Twitter feed and at his political rallies.

The difference this time was a vigorous attempt by the host, Chris Wallace, to fact-check him, leading to several clashes between the two on matters ranging from the coronavirus response to whether Mr. Trump would accept the results of the election should he lose.

The Coronavirus

The president made a litany of false claims about his administration’s handling of the virus...
Why would a newspaper do that? The problem is fairly obvious:

If we read through to paragraph 4, we're told that the president "made a litany of false claims" as he spoke with Wallace. But in paragraph 1, in this report's lede, we're only told that Trump made "dubious" assertions, using "misleading" evidence.

How weird! If the president made a litany of claims which were flatly false, why wasn't that reported in the opening paragraph? Why wasn't that the main takeaway? If many of his claims were false, why would you open with "dubious?"

We'll note that whoever wrote the headline understood an obvious fact—claims which are "false" are more newsworthy than claims which are merely "dubious." The headline in question says this:
Trump Leans Into False Virus Claims in Combative Fox News Interview
Duh. False claims are more significant than claims which are merely dubious. Almost anyone would understand that—anyone but the Times.

We say "the Times" because we'll assume that Rogers' editor engineered this oddly inverted presentation. We'll assume that Rogers' copy made better logical sense, and that her editor jumbled it up.

Absolutely nothing will turn on this peculiar inversion. That said, it's amazing to see how often this sort of conceptual bungling afflicts the storied Times.

For what it's worth: As she continues, Rogers lists some of the claims by Trump which she says are false. For what it's worth, we're not sure we'd call some of those claims false, as opposed to somewhat or grossly misleading.

What we would do is this—we'd tell our reporter to explain how our mortality rate compares to others around the globe. We night even suggest that she include a basic graphic, like this:

Total coronavirus deaths to date, per million population:
United States: 433
Germany: 109
Norway: 47
Japan: 8
South Korea: 6
Australia: 5
New Zealand: 4
Does it look like we have the world's best rate? We don't think it does!

Rogers included no such material. Who needs information?

14 comments:

  1. "New Zealand: 4"

    What does any of this have to do with New Zealand, dear Bob?

    You might as well add "Moon: 0". Talk about "grossly misleading".

    ...oh, and incidentally, if you feel compelled to include New Zealand, why wouldn't you also include this, dear Bob:

    New Jersey: 1,777
    New York: 1,674
    ...
    Montana: 35
    Alaska: 25
    Hawaii: 17

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  2. The Times story says this:

    “The United States has the eighth-worst fatality rate among reported coronavirus cases in the world, and the death rate per 100,000 people — 42.83 — ranks it third-worst, according to data on the countries most affected by the coronavirus compiled by Johns Hopkins University.”

    It links to the Johns Hopkins page. (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality, the same one Somerby linked to in his previous post.)

    Note that the reporter correctly included the qualification “third-worst, according to data on the countries most affected by the coronavirus compiled by Johns Hopkins University.”

    That is precisely how Johns Hopkins describes the first graph. (“Mortality in the most affected countries”).

    Lower down on their page, the complete list of countries is shown. It is sortable by column. The columns include CFR, and deaths per 100,000.

    So I would rate this claim false: “Rogers included no such material. Who needs information?”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "countries most affected by the coronavirus" - what a bunch of bullshit. Why is Chile "most affected" but Italy, Spain, Belgium, Sweden aren't?

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  3. "If we read through to paragraph 4, we're told that the president "made a litany of false claims" as he spoke with Wallace. But in paragraph 1, in this report's lede, we're only told that Trump made "dubious" assertions, using "misleading" evidence."

    This is the muddle you get yourself into with too close, narrow and literal a reading of text. Most people don't see the distinction that Somerby is today emphasizing. Nor should they. It is as if Somerby misses the big picture, routinely, because he has his nose constantly glued to the preciseness of language that just doesn't work that way.

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  4. Yeah, precision of language -- how dare he? False and dubious are close enough. Let's ask for our money back.

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