According to NYT, the concept of false balance “masquerades as rational thinking”

Unbelievably, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd declared yesterday that one of the most widespread critiques of mainstream news media doesn’t even qualify as “rational thought,” and is in fact a sneaky partisan attack.

Keep in mind that this is the same newspaper that, two months ago, ran a Paul Krugman column in which Krugman diagnosed false balance (also known as false equivalence, “both sides do it,” or “bothsidesism” as Krugman labels it) as the reason that Donald Trump remains competitive in polls.

Spayd is troubled by charges of “false balance” because the New York Times has run many investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server scandal, and many readers have written in complaining that the NY Times is, in the words of one reader, “drinking the false equivalency Kool-Aid.”

As someone who receives the print version of the New York Times, I can say that there are, on average, two to three anti-Trump pieces in the paper every day. Frequently they are front page news stories, but there are also anti-Trump editorials and op-eds as well as lengthier articles deeper in the paper. If readers think the NYT treats Trump and Clinton as equally bad choices, then readers are wrong. The New York Times is clearly devoted to reporting all of Trump’s errors, gaffes, stumbles, fumbles and faux pas.

That said, Spayd overreaches in her column when she declares that “the problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking.” There is nothing irrational about critiquing the news media’s (at best irritating and at worst grossly irresponsible) tendency to seek balance. After all, that is precisely what journalists are trained to do, and if they do it poorly that means they were trained poorly as novices and edited poorly as professionals.

Furthermore, false balance tends to show up far more often in commentary than in coverage. Here is an excellent case study from the New York Times’ own David Brooks, appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday:

BROOKS: [Trump] was saying things – as E.J. pointed out – which were just ridiculous – the support for Putin, the oil comment, the idea that we should leave back some core of people and take Iraq’s oil is moral idiocy. First of all, it wouldn’t work. Second of all, it’s called imperialism. And it’s been done and it didn’t work, and it’s an outrage. And it sort of goes under the radar because he’s just ill-informed about what it would actually take.

She was just as bad, but in a different way. She’s certainly well-informed, but she was so ungracious and so unpleasant and so evasive that I think on style points, which matter a lot in these sort of things, she showed just tremendous vulnerability.

So you see, Trump’s ideas and policies are “ridiculous” and “moral idiocy” and an “outrage” and “ill-informed,” but Clinton was “ungracious” and “evasive” so she was “just as bad.”

That’s false equivalency. Krugman correctly diagnoses the problem, Brooks gives us a textbook example of it, and Spayd says that pointing out this journalistic error is irrational and partisan. Go figure.


InsiderLouisville columns

WFPL Columns

Here is a complete list of all the WFPL columns I published from February 2013 to August 2014.

Book reviews

Here are links to all the reviews I’ve written for the Courier-Journal since 2012.

  • Review of Mario Livio, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013) in the Courier-Journal, 13 September 2013.
  • Review of Alex Stone, Fooling Houdini, Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. (New York: Harper, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 26 July 2013.
  • Review of Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays. (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 19 April 2013.
  • Review of Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. (New York: Nation Books, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 8 March 2013.
  • Review of Al Smith, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 4 January 2013.
  • Review of Hedrick Smith, Who Stole the American Dream? (New York: Random House, 2012), in the Courier-Journal, 18 January 2012.
  • Review of Gene Robinson, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage. (New York: Vintage, 2013) in the Courier-Journal, 19 October 2012.
  • Review of Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. (New York: Scribner, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 7 September 2012.
  • Review of Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 29 June 2012.

Local media critics: a rare species

I’ve been really enjoying my gig with WFPL. During his interview with me, Jonathan Bastian asked me where I get my ideas for columns, and I said that it was all too easy: not only do friends and acquaintances regularly suggest ideas, but local news media (especially television) is an endless source of opportunities for media criticism. All I have to do is watch the local news for a few days or peruse their websites.

But I’ve noticed that I seem to be in a class of one. Despite my best Google-fu techniques, I can’t find any other examples of working local media critics in the United States. As Gabe Bullard wrote in the introduction to my first column, “in cities like Louisville, media criticism has gone the way of afternoon papers and Saturday mail.” The Courier-Journal fired its critic Tom Dorsey back in 2008. Perhaps I am the last of my kind?

A new gig at WFPL; conservatives & the CJ

I now have a freelance position as WFPL’s media critic. My first column about the lack of student perspectives in local media coverage has already been posted. Because I submit my writing for the WFPL staff to post instead of posting it myself, the gap between writing and posting is long (several days — an eternity in news time), which means I’m not able to quickly comment on Louisville news media events as they happen. For instance, the resignation of John David Dyche brought up a lot of issues about the definition of censorship, media dominance, and the obligations of local media.

From my perspective, it seems that many (but not all) conservative critics of the Courier-Journal are not upset that the newspaper is biased, but that it has a specifically liberal bias. These particular critics demand that the CJ publish more conservative columnists, even though it already carries George Will, Thomas Sowell, and Cal Thomas. They demand that the CJ stop publishing its own editorial opinions (something every newspaper around the United States does) and start publishing conservative editorial opinions. Nevermind that the CJ’s letters to the editor are routinely conservative; nevermind that the CJ routinely publishes conservative political cartoons. The idea is not just that bias must be eliminated, but that all liberal thought must be eliminated.

Having read Dyche’s rejected column, I’m not sure why the Courier refused to publish it. The public reasons given by Platt seem insufficient and inconsistent. That said, I’m also not sure why Dyche quit. He should have given his column to another local media outlet and then made a public stink about it until the CJ either apologized or severed their relationship. It hurt his case (and his cause) for Dyche to take his ball and go home.

Now imagine the same situation in reverse: suppose Thomas Frank wrote a scathing column critiquing the Wall Street Journal, the WSJ refused to publish it, and Thomas Frank stormed off in a huff. How would the conservative world react? “Too bad,” they would say. “It’s their newspaper and they have a right to control their content. If you don’t like it, start your own newspaper!”

And that’s exactly what I would say to John David Dyche and the conservatives of the Metro Louisville area: start your own newspaper. If you sincerely believe that the Courier-Journal is out of touch and out of tune with the mindset of area residents, then what an incredible opportunity this is for you to start your own print version of Fox News and attract all those angry former CJ subscribers. As Glenn Beck discovered, there’s gold in them thar hills!

A library on my wrist: technology, information, and education

Apparently the relatively affluent middle class in the United States and other industrial nations can look forward to wearable computers in the form of an Apple watch or Google glasses. Presumably these devices will be able to use Wi-Fi and/or cellphone networks to connect to the Internet, which means that it will require even less effort for us to look up any piece of information we want. We won’t even have to stick our hands in our pockets or purses to pull out that cellphone — the information superhighway will be on our wrists or in our eyes all of the time.

For educators, this means rethinking our approach to learning. In the past we insisted that children memorize things, and even now, when we encounter someone who can instantly recall an enormous variety of facts both significant and trivial, we tend to view that person as very smart, even though we’ve known for quite some time that memory is not the same as intelligence. Anyone who watched Rain Man knows the difference.

In an environment where all human knowledge is instantly accessible, what’s the point in forcing students to memorize facts? Wait, I know the answer to this one: so they can regurgitate those facts on easily-scored multiple-choice assessments. But set aside our national obsession with testing for a moment and ask yourself: if the purpose of public education is to prepare students for the future, then why should we bar the tools of the future from our classrooms? Instead of focusing on rote memorization of facts that can be easily looked up within seconds, why not focus on teaching students how to analyze, interpret, and evaluate those facts?

The previous paragraph serves as an example of my point. When writing that last sentence, I couldn’t remember the specific name of the particular classification of learning objectives that prioritized higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and interpretation. I went to Google and typed in “analyze interpret evaluate create remember,” and one of the top five results was an explanation of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This entire post is the result of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation: I read the New York Times story about the Apple watch, which got me thinking about technology and education, which in turn made me rethink educators’ backwards approach to personal technology in the classroom. Of course writing this post would have taken slightly less time if I could have just instantly remembered the name of that taxonomy, but not everybody has that type of (to borrow computer terminology) instantly searchable random access memory.

Pocket computers are already a reality, and yet it seems as if most public schools in the United States ban their usage, if not their possession. This seems exactly the opposite of what we ought to be doing. The common arguments against cellphones in classrooms is that students will use them to cheat, to send each other inappropriate messages, to play games when they should be working. But students can already do all of those things without cellphones. Students cheat, pass notes, and play games with paper and pencil. Why haven’t we banned those? Students read fiction for fun when they should be reading their math textbooks. Why haven’t we banned novels in public schools?

Obviously paper, pencils, and books have a proper educational purpose, and we teachers know that if we catch students using them inappropriately, we can provide proper consequences. We don’t ban those educational tools outright on the very real chance that someone might misuse them. But that is precisely our approach to personal computing technology in the classroom. We could be using SMS tools like PollEverywhere or ClassPager; we could challenge students to read about current events on their phones’ web browsers; we could have students collaborate with Skitch, examine Molecules, or prewrite with Popplet. Instead, we forbid the technology, mainly out of fear and ignorance.

Another potential objection to personal technology is its promotion upon dependence: those things don’t work without batteries, the Internet, and so forth. But that objection is somewhat disingenuous. The vast majority of us don’t teach our children how to preserve meat, trim wicks, or build fires from scratch any more, and no one says “But if the power goes out, what then?” Likewise, it’s no good to respond to the ubiquity of Internet access with “What if the power goes out?” or “What if the Internet is down?” because the Internet will be (or already is!) a commonplace feature of modern life, just like electricity, and outages will be (or currently are) brief and rare.

I look forward to teaching in a classroom where every student has the Internet at their fingertips (not to mention all of their textbooks in digital form) because I would much rather spend my time teaching students at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy. Instead of simply memorizing the formula for calculating velocity, the date of Gutenberg’s famous invention, or the correct conjugation of dormir, let’s make sure our students can use this information in meaningful ways that will enhance their daily lives in the future. And part of that daily life will be wearable computers.

It’s not a popularity contest

Okay everybody, take a deep breath and say it together:


We can disagree on whether that’s a good or bad thing, but we cannot disagree about whether or not it’s true.

So all of these reporters breathlessly updating us on the latest polls showing Obama or Romney up or down by half a percentage point are certainly missing the point.

Nate Silver gets it, which is why he’s giving Obama the best odds to win the election.

But this really ticks off the people who make a living from horse-race reporting, so they have to go after Silver. For example, Dylan Byers of Politico says that Silver’s putting his “celebrity” at risk with his prediction because the polls are so close! But polls don’t matter; electoral votes do. Byers doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps he’s too blinded by his contempt for “coffee-drinking NPR types of Seattle, San Francisco and Madison.” Wink-wink, nudge-nudge! We all know who he’s really talking about, don’t we?!

Dylan Byers also reported that the media are stumped by the 2012 race – no one can know anything for sure! But that’s because they can’t do math. It’s simple: a candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win. Romney is unlikely to reach that number and Obama is likely to surpass it. Therefore, Obama is most likely to win. This isn’t partisan wishful thinking; it’s simple math supported by weighted polls. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but don’t act like the outcome of the election is unpredictable, or that anyone who makes a prediction must be trying to “spin” the election.

What is the difference between what a photo shows and what it appears to show?

Even European journalists can be excessively deferential to authorities. In a series of photo captions published on the Guardian’s website, an unnamed reporter or editor uses the following headline, photo and caption as part of ongoing coverage of the anti-austerity demonstrations in Madrid:


“Appears to show”? “Hold back”? The Guardian, Getty Images, or whoever is responsible for the caption and headline, are really heading into the deep waters of cultural criticism here. What is the difference between what a photo actually shows and what it appears to show? René Magritte was well aware of the treachery of images, as was Michel Foucault; perhaps even more relevant is the ability of authorities to convince us that a videotape depicting unjustified police brutality is not, in fact, a videotape depicting unjustified police brutality. Perhaps it just depends on how you look at it, as Bill Hicks pointed out.

Until journalists are willing to accurately describe what they see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, and document with their own cameras — without fear of offending powerful interests — we can’t really expect them to do their duty as watchdogs of democracy.

Three stories, three angles on the Benghazi attack

Several media critics have lambasted the news media’s coverage of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the protests against the film that supposedly inspired the attack — or did it? That’s the question at the heart of these three news stories:

New York Times: Libya Envoy’s Killing Was a Terrorist Attack, the White House Says

Fox News: Carney Says ‘Self Evident’ Benghazi Attack Was Terrorism

NBC News: White House: Libya consulate siege that killed four was ‘terrorist attack’

These three stories provide a good case study in media criticism. Let’s specifically look at the issues of angle and word choice.

In the NYT article the angle is made clear in the first sentence: “The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a ‘terrorist attack.'” In other words, the Obama administration declined to use the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” previously and instead depicted the attack as the result of “Muslim rage” over a ridiculous movie.

Fox News took a more oppositional, skeptical approach. Here’s their lead:

The White House, after insisting for more than a week that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a “spontaneous” act, conceded Thursday that it was “self evident” that it was an act of terror – an admission that took eight days for any administration official to make.

The article, published with no byline, emphasizes the change in the White House’s approach. Where the NYT simply used the word “now” to suggest the change, Fox makes the decision explicit. In fact, the NYT says that “Until now, White House officials had not used that language in describing the assault” — but the NYT never mentions what language the Obama administration previously used. The Fox article makes that clear.

NBC, on the other hand, waits until paragraph four to mention that the White House was using the phrase “terrorist attack” for the first time. They even use some weasel words to muddy the waters:

Since the Benghazi attack occurred amid protests of an American-made anti-Islam video that was circulating on the Internet, it has been unclear whether it was planned independently or launched opportunistically when the demonstration was under way, or if it was a spontaneous attack emerging out of the protests.

To whom has it been unclear? Other media sources reported that the attack appeared to be planned in advance. Where is the lack of clarity? Only in the White House. It seems as if NBC is being excessively deferential. Add to this the fact that NBC only bothered to include official White House sources in their story, and it begins to look like they didn’t really do their homework at all. This might be fairly labeled a classic case of lack of enterprise, otherwise known as passive reporting.

The NYT story provides better context than the NBC story by including a quote from Brian Fishman but no Republican sources are quoted. Of course Fox has a quote from a Republican, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), as well as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The other quotes came not from interviews but from public sources like White House spokesman Jay Carney (did you notice that Fox never included his first name?) and testimony from Matt Olsen, director of the National CounterTerrorism Center.

So Fox earns journalism points for taking a watchdog stance toward the White House by making the administration’s reversal clear in the very first paragraph. That’s exactly what journalists ought to be doing when covering powerful people and institutions. But let’s look again at Fox’s story:

The White House, after insisting for more than a week for more than a week that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a “spontaneous” act, conceded Thursday that it was “self evident” that it was an act of terror … The administration is still sticking by its claim that they don’t have evidence the assault was pre-planned. But Carney for the first time Thursday called it terrorism — while downplaying the fact that he was doing so.

There are instances of deliberate word choice here that are more evaluative than descriptive. Words like “concede” and “sticking by” imply that the White House is on the losing side of an argument. It seems that the purpose of the article is to depict a clumsy administration incompetently stumbling through a foreign policy fiasco while unable to keep their facts straight. But those sentences could have easily been rewritten to provide the same information without the spin:

The White House said Thursday that the deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi was a “self evident,” planned act of terror after more than a week of describing it as a “spontaneous” act … The administration continues to claim that they don’t have evidence the assault was pre-planned, but Carney called it terrorism for the first time Thursday .

Let the readers judge for themselves whether or not Carney was “downplaying” anything by printing his quotes in full rather than trying to interpret his motives. Whatever bonus points Fox gained by being skeptical and critical of administration claims have been lost by the use of transparently evaluative (rather than simply descriptive) language.

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