The skills of the upper-end press corps: His analysis is the featured front-page report in today's New York Times.
It sits at the top of page A1. In print editions, the headline says this:
U.S. Is Alone Among Peers In Failing to Contain VirusThat's a wholly accurate statement. Early on in his report, David Leonhardt says this:
LEONHARDT (8/7/20): Nearly every country has struggled to contain the coronavirus and made mistakes along the way.Leonhardt's basic premise is plainly true. The United States has handled the virus much more poorly than every comparable nation. Plainly, we're the train wreck of the developed world when it comes to the virus.
Yet even with all of these problems, one country stands alone, as the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained outbreak for more than four months: the United States.
Over the past month, about 1.9 million Americans have tested positive for the virus. That’s more than five times as many as in all of Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia, combined.
Even though some of these countries saw worrying new outbreaks over the past month, including 50,000 new cases in Spain, the outbreaks still pale in comparison to those in the United States.
We agree with Leonhardt's basic claim. We don't agree with the way he argues in support of his claim.
How does Leonhardt struggle and fail? We think there are two basic problems:
He emphasizes "cases," not deaths: Right from the start, Leonhardt focuses on "cases" rather than deaths. For many doubters, this will play right into Trump's strong hand—the wide array of phony claims he has made about "cases" and testing.
Many people believe Trump's central claim—his claim that we have more "cases" because we do much more testing. "Cases" is a nebulous statistic to begin with, but it's also the statistic many people will be reluctant to believe.
When he discusses deaths, he uses the less instructive statistic: Eventually, Leonhardt does talk about deaths.
When he does, he uses the less significant measure of deaths—and his presentation is selective and misleading:
LEONHARDT: Already, the American death toll is of a different order of magnitude than in most other countries. With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States has accounted for 22 percent of coronavirus deaths. Canada, a rich country that neighbors the United States, has a per capita death rate about half as large. And these gaps may worsen in coming weeks, given the lag between new cases and deaths.Finally, in that passage, Leonhardt discusses our "per capita death rate." But he doesn't do so until that passage, which is paragraph 18.
When he does discuss deaths instead of cases, he discusses total deaths to date (per capita). He skips the more seminal statistic—current daily or weekly deaths (per capita).
Leonhardt wants to show that were the train wreck of the developed world, but he chooses the wrong way to do it. Even now, the United States isn't the worst in the developed world at the measure Leonhardt discusses.
We may be substantially worse than Canada, but five other developed nations are still substantially worse than we are. Below, you see the data:
Total deaths to date, per million population:Even now, we aren't the worst among developed nations at total deaths to date (per capita). Canada is doing better than we are, but five European countries are still doing worse. In short, the U.S. is not "alone among peers" if that's the measure you're using.
United Kingdom: 685
United States: 493
That said, we're the god-awful worst, by far, at current daily or weekly deaths. Here you see the god-awful way we compare, in our current stumblebum state, to the countries listed above:
Deaths in the past seven days, as of August 7:Those numbers haven't been adjusted for population. But even if you do adjust, our current daily/weekly death rate dwarfs those of all comparable nations.
United States: 8,034
United Kingdom: 414
When it comes to current deaths, we're a god-awful joke. We're the current train wreck of the developed world, by far.
Leonhardt's (accurate) point is that we are the train wreck of the developed world. Plainly, a person can't establish that point with the "death rate" statistic he chose.
Our gruesome status only becomes clear when you talk about current, ongoing death rates. But when Leonhardt stops talking "cases" and starts talking deaths, he uses the statistic which doesn't show what a pitiful train wreck we are.
Can we talk? Our major journalists are amazingly bad at almost all professional tasks. (Leonhardt, who went to Yale, has long been sold as one of the smart ones.)
In this morning's front-page report, Leonhardt started with "cases," a nebulous statistic which plays into Trump's hands. And when he finally started discussing deaths, he used the statistic which doesn't show how bad our current state is.
One last point:
Online, the Times has added a graphic right under paragraph 18. The graphic shows a version of (current) "Daily deaths per million."
That's the statistic Leonhardt didn't use in paragraph 18. In order to show what a train wreck we are, it's the statistic he should have used. Online at the Times, no explanation is offered.
People reading the Times online will just have to figure the whole thing out for themselves. That graphic didn't appear in that location in this morning's sprawling report in the hard-copy Times. So it goes as our brightest journalists try to explain the world.
Our journalists are masters of very few skills. Memorization of Storyline may be their only real skill.
Our journalists are masters of very few skills. This fact is highly counterintuitve, but it's plainly true.