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.)
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