IMITATIONS OF DISCOURSE: These claims just in from one small town!

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 2021

CNN attempts (or pretends) to explain: Again and again and again and again—then again and again all over again—our society's attempts at public discussion are mere "imitations of life."

Again and again, they qualify as "imitations of discourse," as "non-discussion discussions." We offer three cheers for Kevin Drum for critiquing one recent example.

It was Thursday morning, November 4, and CNN's Brianna Keilar was attempting to discuss the current state of inflation. Or maybe she was just pretending to make an honest attempt—there's rarely a way to be sure.

At any rate, Keilar was hosting CNN's New Day during the 6 A.M. Eastern hour. Her lengthy, badly bungled presentation started as shown:

KEILAR (11/4/21): As the U.S. experiences lingering high inflation and severe constraints on the supply chain, families are being forced to deal with the consequences in their everyday lives.

Evan McMorris-Santoro is live for us in New York City right now. Evan, you spoke with one couple about how this new economic reality is affecting how they feed their kids. What did they tell you?

Almost parodically, McMorris-Santoro had spoken with one (1) couple! He may have been in New York City, but the couple with whom he spoke live in a small town on the eastern side of the Texas Panhandle.

"I went to Canadian, Texas, to go shopping with a family to talk about what this actually means to live in America right now," the correspondent now said. 

He never explained how he ended up visiting with this one unusual family. He never explained how the experience of one family in one small town could possibly tell us what it "actually means to live in America right now." 

How had McMorris-Santoro ended up with this one unusual family? That point was never explained. What followed was a rather typical imitation of journalism—an imitation of life.

"What does inflation mean for American families? This is the story of the Stotlers' weekly shop," McMorris-Santoro said. He then broadcast his interview with Krista and Larry Stotler, who are parents to nine children. 

(Six of the children are adopted. One is a foster child.)

According to the lengthy segment, the Stotlers are currently getting massacred by the rising price of groceries, but especially by the rising price of milk. We turn now to Drum's summary of what was said about inflation during the interview portion of this feature:

DRUM (11/4/21): What's more interesting about this news segment is what it tells us about people's perceptions of inflation. Let's review. At one point, Mrs. Stotler says, "I think probably in June it was about a dollar was worth a dollar, so now that dollar is worth about 70 cents."

A little later, she gets specific: milk has gone up from $1.99 to $2.79.

Their total shopping bill for the week comes to $310. A few months ago, "we would have spent probably 150, 200 dollars, something like that."

We also have USDA figures for the price of milk. In Dallas, it's gone up from $2.99 to $3.29 since last June. (That's an average. It might be cheaper at certain stores.)

Keilar and McMorris-Santoro chose to broadcast Krista Stotler's shifting accounts of what has happened to the price of milk (and to the price of groceries in general) where she and her family live. 

As you can see, that's where Drum jumped in.

"We also have USDA figures for the price of milk," he wryly observed. And as it turns out, the Krista Stotler's account of the rising price of milk seems to bears little relation to the actual rise in the price of milk, if we assume that the USDA is able to quantify such matters.

(To review the USDA's data and methodology, you can just click here

(In Houston, the price of milk has gone from $3.50 to $3.51 since last June. In New York City, where McMorris-Santoro stood, it has gone from $4.23 down to $4.19.)

Just to be clear, the Stotlers don't live in Dallas. Presumably, Drum chose Dallas as the nearest city to the Stotlers for which data exist.

That said, the rise in prices in Dallas don't seem to match the varied accounts offered by Krista Stotler.  Later, Drum summarized the way the fuller discussion played out:

DRUM: Here's how this nets out:

First Stotler guess: Inflation is running at about a 100% annual rate.

Second Stotler guess: inflation is running at about a 90% annual rate.

Third Stotler guess for all groceries: inflation is running at a 70-140% annual rate.

USDA figures: Extrapolating from the June price, the cost of milk is going up at about a 25% annual rate.

Also USDA figures: Milk has actually gone up 8% in the past year.

BLS: The inflation rate for groceries in general is currently 4.4%

Krista Stotler's various accounts had been all over the map. None of her estimates actually seem to match the actual state of affairs, whether in the Dallas area or in the nation as a whole.

There is no sign that it occurred to Keilar or McMorris-Santoro that they should fact-check Krista Stotler's various statements about shifting prices where she lives. There is no sign that they considered presenting regional or national data, placing her shifting claims in a wider context.

Instead, they simply broadcast Stotler's claims, in which the weekly price of her family's groceries may have doubled in the past "few months." (May have gone from $150 to $310.) Keilar was willing to broadcast that claim without offering a hint of a challenge or a fact-check or a bit of wider context.

The lengthy segment by CNN qualifies as Standard Familiar Total Complete Incompetence. We say that for this reason:

In the course of the lengthy segment, Keilar and McMorris-Santoro showcased their ability to empathize with Regular People. This is a standard part of the product CNN sells—of its branding strategy.

(A favorite question at CNN: "How did you feel when you saw your grandmother being swept away by the flood?")

Keilar and McMorris-Santoro displayed their impressive empathy. At the same time, they demonstrated an Almost Total Lack of Journalistic / Analytical Skill.

To appearances, it didn't occur to Keilar or Santoro-Morris to check the claims of this one person against prevailing data. They simply accepted the claim that the Stotlers' weekly grocery bill may have gone from $150 to $310 in the past few months.

Judging from appearance, Mrs. Stotler's various accounts vastly overstated the actual state of affairs regarding the price of milk and other groceries in the nation as a whole. In this sense, the segment created a deeply troubling impression—an impression which doesn't seem to be borne out by the facts

As is standard at CNN, the empathy was general. The analytical / intellectual / journalistic skills were essentially non-existent. 

No, Canadian! As a general matter, the price of milk doesn't seem to have risen in the way Mrs. Stotler described, whether in the Dallas area or in the country as a whole. As a general matter, the rise in the price of milk and other groceries seems to have been much less than Keilar and McMorris-Santoro were willing to suggest.

Drum has often argued that mainstream journalists are strongly inclined to overstate inflation. We aren't experts on that question, but as a more general matter, this general type of journalistic bungling is remarkably common.

In closing, a few quick notes about the two journalists:

Keilar has been at CNN since 2006. Within the past few years, CNN has begun to let her offer her own editorial analyses during her various broadcasts.

The results have struck us as poor. Still, this turn to pontification is a key part of the decline of "tribal cable" as practiced by our own Blue Team.

As for McMorris-Santoro, when this poorly-fashioned segment came under review on Twitter, he offered this thoughtful reply:

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (11/4/21): Truly remarkable number of assholes on here attempting to dunk on a charming family who lays out how it feels to shop with price rises. Very wise and cool tweets. Glad you’re all weathering the economy so well!

The family in question was charming! Why weren't the nation's *ssholes able to see that?

In fairness to McMorris-Santoro, many of the tweets had raised dim-witted, irrelevant points. This too is part of Who and What We Actually Are At This Point in Time.

Our society's public discussions tend to be imitations of rational life. We'll be discussing this problem all week. 

For the record, our own blue tribe is part of this debilitating problem. So, of course, are the "lesser breed," the people one finds Over There.

Tomorrow: Even at the highest levels, incompetence is the norm


44 comments:

  1. If you want to discuss actual inflation, use the USDA figures. If you want to discuss how people are perceiving rising prices in their home towns, then that family chosen by this journalist is relevant. Their perception is that inflation is high.

    It may be that their struggle with costs of raising a family is causing them to misperceive inflation, but isn't that an important point? The subjective experience of our economy may not be what economists and people such as Drum say it is.

    Somerby wants to blame the journalist. Why? I don't see how this "shoot the messenger" approach to current events is helpful. Should news only consist of recitations of statistics and figures? Who would read it then, aside from wonks? And isn't the experience of real people relevant to a discussion of how people are coping with our current economy?

    Is the reporter wrong when he recounts how these people feel about the cost of milk? I don't think so. The "error" belongs to the family interviewed and they are explaining how it feels to them, not surveying actual prices over time in their area.

    This is another nothingburger presented by Somerby to impeach journalists. Somerby's agenda is the actual point of today's post, as every day, since there is nothing to be learned here about milk prices or inflation (unlike Drum's blog), just about Somerby's dislike of journalists.

    Then he concludes that Democrats are at fault! I don't see that connection drawn at all, but he says it every day.

    Meanwhile, Imitation of Life is a movie depicting the problems of race relations in America as they affect two single-parent women with daughters growing up in very different circumstances. How on earth is this relevant to anything in today's essay? How does the word "imitation", which appears to be why Somerby grabbed this reference from his stream of consciousness, related to anything either?

    And I remember when Somerby complained because journalists were using too many facts and suggested that they go out and interview some real people. Now that a reporter has done so, he is apparently wrong -- so it is damned if you do and damned if you don't, in Somerby's world.

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    1. Anonymouse 12:18pm is all for journos allowing regular-joes to quote numbers and the inflation rate as an indication of their subjective experience without any follow-up correction in the piece.

      Is this poor journalism and possibly done in order to crank up the story drama? Sure! Could such fake news hurt the Biden Administration? Who cares when trolling a blog is your bread-and-butter!

      Anonymices always have their priorities straight.

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    2. Ha! Yes I've never seen so little of substance in so many words.

      "Should news only consist of recitations of statistics and figures?"

      Garbage like this doesn't even deserve to be commented on. Trolling a blog, indeed.

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    3. She's one of the world's greatest trolls. You have to give her credit for walking the line between sounding serious and hardcore absurdist trolling. It's very weird for one to spend their time doing something like that but she does do it well.

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    4. "Meanwhile, Imitation of Life is a movie depicting ...."

      That is really awesome.

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    5. Cecelia, their inflation of their estimates of price increases reflects the economic pinch they are feeling. That makes it data of a different kind, and that was my point. Not that these people were accurate economists but that their subjective sense of the economy was negative no matter what the cost of milk.

      And this is the point where I might ask whether you deliberately misconstrued my comment or were really that stupid...but there is no point when we all know what you are.

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    6. I didn’t misconstrue your comment at all. That’s why I used the phrase “their subjective experience”.

      Journos don’t assume that the audience will automatically glean that the info cited by the Stotlers is significant only as an indication of their bleak outlook.

      No one should have to tell you that it was incumbent on the reporter to cite the facts within the context of illustrating the Stotler’s emotional anguish.

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    7. The journalist accurately reported what they said.

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    8. Somerby's concerns here are just misdirection. Due to Biden and the Dems in congress, that family has been receiving at least $2250/month from the government, so the mild increase in food costs is dwarfed by the Child Care Tax Credit. That's the story the journalist failed to cover.

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  2. We wouldn't trust the USDA, dear Bob. It's quite possible that, for example, cheap brands disappear from the local supermarket, replaced by more expensive brands; we've seen it last year.

    The USDA tells you that the cheap brand costs the same, but so what, if it's nowhere to be found.

    But then we, obviously, wouldn't trust CNN either. So, it's neither here nor there.

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    1. Supply and demand in a Capitalist society?
      Tell us more, Karl Marx.

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    2. Just your average family of two parents with nine kids.

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    4. They could be a Quiverfull family, in which case conservatives wouldn't be mocking them, or perhaps they have taken in foster kids, in which case conservatives would fire away. Either way, the kids need to be cared for and they most likely didn't choose their parents, any more than you did, Cecelia. But hey, if you find food insecurity (hunger) funny, laugh your little heart out -- oh, wait, you don't have one do you?

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    5. Who has, in any way, mocked this family? Mr. and Mrs. Stotler seem to be wonderfully giving people. Certainly not “average”.

      It’s the judgment of the reporter that’s being questioned.

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    6. You mocked them when you made your stupid remark about them being a typical American family.

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    7. It’s not mocking them to say that they aren’t representative of the average family. Families with nine children are objectively not average and especially not average in a story about the spiraling costs of food prices.

      Unless you think buying 12gallons of milk per week is average.

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    8. @7:55 PM, it's nothing new; just like all other dembot confessions.

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  3. Well it does seem weird to buy 12 gallons of milk a week but hey I won't judge.

    What's interesting is how this "charming" family would be perceived if they happened to, I don't know, maybe have an issue with the current school materials being taught... then it would become somewhat inconvenient and maybe they'd be fact checked a little!

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    1. Somerby didn't do any checking on Laura Murphy.

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    2. 3:22 It sure doesn't seem like it, since he repeated two falsehoods about Murphy; the truth is she did try to ban the book, and her son always was able to opt out of reading the book since that was, and is, school policy. He mislead about that student sexual assault case in VA as well. Somerby, his fanboys, and Republicans all share a goal, to spread ignorance.

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  4. Facts don't matter if the mob wants to believe something else, then that's "reality."
    And the mob will fight like a rabid dog to protect it.

    If madness prevails, then we are all Wicker Men.

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  5. Cow's milk is for calves. Humans shouldn't drink any of that slop at all.

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    1. I'm willing to give up milk and sour cream, but I draw the line at pizza.

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    2. I assume you are making an exception for babies, imp.

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    3. 3:58 I assume you are not a parent of a young one, because it is pretty common for babies these days (for at least the past 20 yrs) to rarely, if ever, drink cow's milk.

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  6. I suspect that most of the CNN reporters are innumerate as are most of their viewers. Actual magnitudes don't really register. For these people the report said, "This family is experiencing 'a lot' of inflation." And, 'a lot' of inflation is just what the what the official figures show.

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    1. Math is required for 97% of the job titles in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles published by the Department of Labor. I think you are selling the general public short.

      Somerby is pretending to treat this article as if it were a technical report on milk prices when it was actually about a large family feeling the pinch. Somerby is the idiot here, not some hapless reporter.

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    2. No, Anonymouse 3:37pm, Somerby treated this story as though it was a serious real life overview of the stress that families are experiencing in the current economy.

      It is the responsibility of the reporter to give an actual picture of both the emotional toll on the Stotlers AND the economic facts.

      Are anonymices over at Jabberwocky insulting Drum for bothering with the facts?

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    4. You can go read what is being said at Drum's site as well as I can.

      No newspaper article has the space to cover everything. It should be clear to both you and Somerby what the intent of the journalist was in that particular article.

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  7. Somerby doesn't understand the difference between qualitative data and quantitative. He thinks all data should be quantitative, but never having had a course on research methods, he doesn't understand that there are limits on what can be understood by looking only a numbers.

    Reports DO understand this difference, by and large, and they write both technical articles that summarize quantitative data and interpret it, and descriptive articles that attempt to get at human experience by focusing on individuals, families or case studies, describing their subjectivity using words not numbers. Together, these forms of analysis provide a more complete picture of what is going on.

    Somerby dismisses qualitative descriptions as "narrative" or "storyline" or imprecise or improperly selected (why choose that family?). This is because he doesn't know much about reporting, much less studying human beings for research purposes.

    Somerby makes a fool of himself every time he writes on of these hypercritical articles about a topic he doesn't understand -- how to describe human experience. He would be better off expressing his own opinions and not pretending to be engaging in any kind of "critical thinking" based in ignorance. And his unwillingness to disclose his own motives for these daily attacks makes him even more of an asshole.

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    1. Oh, right, Anonymouse 4:17pm.

      Focusing solely on Mrs. Stotler’s emotions as exhibited via her inaccurate statements about food prices, and not informing the audience of the actual costs, gives us a “more complete picture of what is going on”.

      Sheesh…

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    2. It gives a more complete picture of what is going on with consumers. Are the prices more important than the consumers?

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    3. We don’t get an accurate picture of what is going on in the psyches of consumers unless we have the factual data as context.

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    4. As I said, both approaches work together. I am not suggesting one or the other.

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    5. The actual facts of our society are routinely ignored by Republicans (and Somerby), and now suddenly he wants an accounting? Brother, please. He can start the list here, and add hundreds of other data points just as bleak: Black families have less than 15 percent of the wealth of White families.

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    6. Anonymouse 7:39pm,please. You know the actual fact…the real deal…the solid truth of the matter…the low-low…is that you could start your own blog and write according to your own sense of priorities and proprieties.

      sshhhh…pass it on…



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    7. Pshaw. And miss out on Somerby's Right-wing grievance of the day?

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    8. You’re endlessly nursing your own grievances. Go get your own blog.

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    9. Reality = Blacks are oppressed and suffering greatly

      Cecelia = oh yeah, well who cares, I don't

      Good to know the conservative perspective, much obliged.

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    10. We care! And we hear Africa is a great place for the suffering blacks, dear dembot. A few hours on a plane, and - voila - no more sufferings, evah!

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    11. Mao,
      Also, there are no Republicans in Africa trying to keep blacks from voting in elections, like there are here in the USA.

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