Occasional Notes: Temptations

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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57 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    Should the Times Report Facts?”

    Wasn’t this just an issue here?  I seem to remember someone (TVD maybe?) saying that this falls into editorializing.  (I may be misremembering.)Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      If the reporter injects a contrary argument [or “fact”] without attribution, he becomes a litigant himself and injects himself into the story.  It’s no longer neutral reporting.

      There’s already a successful technique to avoid this.

      “Republican X said “The sky is blue.”

      However, Dr. Anita Limburger of Harvard’s Institute for the Study of Why Republicans Suck notes, “The color of the sky is not always blue: sometimes it’s gray, and at night, it’s almost black.”

      Then over on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fact-O-Matic sidebar, award-winning astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson confirms that it’s night at least half the time, and some days are indeed cloudy—not to mention there’s eclipses every once in awhile.

      Fact-O-Matic impartially rules that the statement “The sky is blue” is Mostly False.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        If the reporter injects a contrary argument [or “fact”] without attribution

        That’s the kicker, you need the attribution.

        But, more importantly, there is nothing wrong with setting the stage properly in the first place.  You don’t even necessarily need to go so far as to inject a contrary argument.

        You need to make the interviewee provide attribution.  *That* is something that never happens.

        “My plan will create 2,000,000 new jobs by lowering business costs and enabling companies to hire again!”

        “Excuse me, Senator… but can you provide a citation for that claim of 2,000,000 jobs?  Also, according to the description you just gave us, your plan will lower business costs for large businesses, but will raise costs for smaller businesses – you admitted that yourself.  Can you provide independent analysis that agrees that, on net, this will result in greater liquidity for American businesses?  Finally, do you have any economic experts who will provide an analysis that supports your implicit assertion that lowering costs will actually result in companies hiring new employees, as opposed to just reporting greater profits?  Can you name them, please?  I’d like to do a followup interview.”Report

        • Pat, reporters hound the interviewee like that all the time.  But the larger point is that most all political rhetoric can be parsed to death.

          And, since I just ran across this


          I submit that if the NYT or NPR actually played it straight, their subscribers and “members” would leave in droves.


          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            Pat, reporters hound the interviewee like that all the time.

            That may be true, Tom, but it seems (to me) that this is very often left out of what is actually reported.  Tape winds up on the floor.  Stuff is chopped out of print.  Specific people are turned into “some experts”.  Citations are removed, and become “some studies”.  No other challenging studies are cited.  No literature review is performed.

            But the larger point is that most all political rhetoric can be parsed to death.

            This is kind of what your linked article is complaining about, yes?  That there are a number of implicit bits that are left out of the journalism that he’s complaining about ought to have been part of the parsing?

            Sometimes this is a legit complaint.

            Now, in that specific example, I don’t know that the complaint is warranted (although it certainly bears further investigation)… if a right-to-work law basically boils down to, “Whatever agreements are met between an employer and a union must be extended to non-union employees working for that same employer”, that’s what it boils down to.  The implications of that (what this means for unions as political animals or to employers or to employees) may or may not be part of the story, I haven’t heard the story.

            You could report on Mississippi’s “constitutional amendment defining personhood as beginning at conception” and say “it passed” or “it didn’t pass” or “it’s up at the next ballot” without interjecting any further description and still it can be a legitimate news report, it depends upon the scope of the report.

            If, on the other hand, you’re going to say “legal scholar Mr. Foo says this would effectively outlaw abortion in Mississippi”, or “the group Right to Life is a staunch supporter of this bill” you should cite Mr. Foo, perhaps interview Mr. Foo, and if you really want to be thorough have done basic research among other legal scholars who may disagree with Mr. Foo… and have *them* on as well, to argue it out.  If Mr. Foo cites a legal case, you should clarify that citation if it’s not actually relevant.  You should interview someone from Right to Life and get them on record as saying they’re a “staunch” supporter, not make up that adjective yourself.

            If NPR is couching language that implies that this law is unfair to the unions or bad for some other reason, then they’re entering into the narrative business.  If NPR is discussing the outcomes of this law and interviewing union folk but no business types, or Democrats but not GOP members, that would be entering into the narrative business.

            Here’s what your link says:

            On the morning of December 29, I was driving and listening to the radio. A National Public Radio anchor, discussing assorted issues being considered by prospective voters in the New Hampshire primary, described a proposed “right-to-work” law as one that would enable employees to benefit from collective bargaining agreements without having to pay dues to the unions negotiating for them.

            No further definition was offered, much less any elaboration of the possible benefits of “right-to-work” laws, which protect workers from compulsory union membership. As a government-subsidized media outlet, and as a fundamental principle of sound journalism, one would think that NPR would seek to report accurately and to avoid embedding political narratives in its ostensibly objective commentary.

            Elaboration of possible benefits (or possible drawbacks) isn’t always required for the story, if it’s basic reporting.  Fair and accurate presentation of them, if you bring them up, is required.  Talking about one possible outcome without talking about the costs of it or the drawbacks of it ain’t kosher.

            This might be a case of NPR introducing narrative, but on the other hand it might not be.  Your link doesn’t actually link to the NRP stories he’s complaining about.

            If NPR elaborates on possible benefits of the law without offering context for the likelihood of those benefits or the context of the drawbacks (if any) or anything else… then the act of elaborating (only) on the possible benefits of the law can be, in fact, the interjection of narrative.

            (edited to add)

            at the end of that linked piece:

            Rather, the premise of the NPR narrative — that workers always benefit from union membership — is not questioned in the stories I sampled. Perhaps it should have been noted that this premise is open to serious question.

            Is this actually a premise of the piece, or does the author assume it’s a premise of the piece because the story doesn’t bring up the antithesis of the premise and the plaintiff assumes that this is a premise of the piece?

            I can imagine a news story where this *is* a premise of the piece, totally. I can imagine another bunch of news stories where in fact it isn’t implied at all, but it is inferred by anyone listening to it. I can even imagine stuff in the middle where it isn’t intentionally implied at all, but it is subconsciously implied, and it isn’t inferred by the listener. I can imagine stuff in the middle where it isn’t intentionally implied, but it is subconsciously implied, and it *is* inferred by the listener. Finally, I can imagine stuff where it isn’t implied at all, but it is inferred by specific someones listening to it.

            That’s a lot of different cases, right there.Report

            • That’s a careful reading of the link, PatC, merci.  However, my general argument is that there’s plenty of editorialish shading by reporters even within the existing rules.  Without endorsing Hartwell’s objections chapter and verse, it should be safe to say that by leaving out the possible benefits—the raison d’etre of the proposed law itself—NPR didn’t report a necessary and essential fact of the matter.

              Further, it shouldn’t be a stretch to infer that the NPR reporter himself didn’t support the legislation.  Often, we can be surer about what was not said [but should’ve been] than our parsing of what was said.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        But you are purposefully choosing something that isn’t (as you point out) a fact.

        Rather, try this:

        Candidate A noted that there are no armed forces in Suboria, because “the Marines are not and never have been a part of US armed forces.”

        Is it really editorializing to follow up with, “However, the US Marines are a part of the armed services, and are headquartered in the US Pentagon?”

        How does the current “fair, objective and balanced reporting” help us?  Which, by the way, goes like this:

        A spokesman for Candidate B issued this statement in response: “Candidate A is fool of hooey!  I’ve always considered the Marines part of the armed forces, and so have the American people.”

        Facts are facts.Report

        • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          Tod, the reporter can’t be a litigant, just the court reporter.

          However, Marine Commandant Gen. Jake Taylor confirmed to The Times that the Marines are indeed part of the US Armed Forces.  “We have uniforms and everything. It’s really great!,” Gen. Taylor noted.

          It’s not like they don’t already use this technique.  Find a conservative in the lede, and you’ll see a lefty “authority” munching on his ankles within two paragraphs.

          I guess I’ll have to do a post on how to read a newspaper.  ;-P


          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            I guess I’ll have to do a post on how to read a newspaper.  ;-P

            This is a good idea.Report

            • PatC, I’ve already offered a primer; we’ll see how that goes.  I have found the What Liberal Bias debate singularly unrewarding, and have no time or inclination to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful.  I can only hope that I’ve given the non-litigants something to keep an eye out for next time they consume some major media.Report

          • Ugh.  Tom, I think you’re promoting the “dueling ‘experts'” approach to journalism, in which as long as the reporter can find two people to (semi) plausibly call experts who report contrasting “facts,” the journalist can pretend s/he’s been fair, balanced and objective, leaving the reader flummoxed to know the accuracy of said facts.  I disagree.  And cutesy analogies about litigants and court reporters don’t amount to a substantive argument.Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to James Hanley says:

              As I’m fond of saying, “It’s not an Argument from Authority” if the authority cited is actually an authority.

              The “dueling experts” approach often is weak freakin’ sauce because the trend in the last 20 years has been to find two people one can plausibly call an expert in order to appear balanced on the “there are two sides to every issue” stance.

              However, if one offers the criteria for establishing expertise, and chooses the experts consistently according to those criteria instead of choosing them based upon what end of the see-saw they’re on, that’s certainly fine.

              If you still feel compelled to be balanced (on the sides see-saw), you must remain fair (in weight) and couch that accordingly.


            • Ugh, James, don’t miss the point.  They already do the dueling experts trip.  The alternative is worse, that the journalist [and therefore the NYT itself] becomes the authority, and the sole arbiter of truth [“fact”].

              Not that this doesn’t happen already, but they’re more clever about it, with their Fact-O-Matic™ sidebars and the like.

              But at least that’s an “entity” you can call on the carpet.  Both left and right assailed PolitiFact


              on its “Lie of the Year.”

              And justifiably, to my mind.  The problem becomes exponential in gtiving reporters the same “freedom” to jump into arbitrating “facts” in what should be their role as “court reporters.”

              [No, I’m not backing off from “court reporters,” and it’s not “cutesy”: They already sneak in plenty of advocacy even within the existing rules. Calling my analogy “cutesy” is not a counterargument, and I object to its use here.]

              In short, the last thing we need is more PolitiFact contentiousness in news articles.  There’s already plenty via the mechanism I describe above per Gen. Jake Taylor.



      • I just wanted to take a moment to pimp one of my first posts over at NaPP.

        In my general view, journalism is inherently narrative. There are degrees of separation (not all narrative is journalism). Facts without context are useless. Context is subject to judgment, which is subject to bias.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Oh, my goodness, Rand Paul would screw up everything.

    That would be a truly smart, Machiavellian pick that would likely bring many wandering Libertarians back into the fold and I can see two or three scenarios where it would win the election for Romney and, by extension, the Republicans.

    Never happen. Never ever.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jaybird says:

      Pretty much what I think, too.

      I hope you’re right that it will never happen.Report

    • Michelle in reply to Jaybird says:

      Ron Paul as VP? I can’t imagine he’d accept even if, by some miracle, Romney offered. Paul is the antithesis of Romney . I think his followers would be devastated if he agreed to play second fiddle to Mr. Bain, seeing him as yet another politician willing to sell his soul for a position of little power.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michelle says:

        Rand Paul.  Still, much of the same applies.Report

        • Michelle in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Ron Paul, Rand Paul–you mean they’re not interchangeable?

          My gaffe–but I don’t think Rand would accept either for much the same reasons. I expect he’ll be running for president at some point and a sell-out to Romney wouldn’t do much to keep the dream alive.Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michelle says:

            Quite so.  They are not interchangeable.

            The most obvious difference is that Paul père still has a lot of answering to do about the racist conspiracy-mongering newsletters, while Paul fils has no serious connection to them.

            Still, I think Rand might decline as well, as he should.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Michelle says:

        Isn’t that how it used to work, though?

        You had your president who was X and your vice-president that was specifically chosen to be the antithesis of X.

        Eisenhower and Nixon.

        Kennedy and Johnson.

        Johnson and Humphrey.

        Nixon and Agnew.

        Carter and Mondale.

        Reagan and Bush.

        Hell, Bush/Quayle might be the first one to buck this trend. If they didn’t, Clinton/Gore definitely did.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Michelle says:

        I have a theory that people who are in the business of seeking power find some justification for taking it when offered.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to Jaybird says:

      Sure, Ron Paul /sounds/ bad, but we’ve already seen what it’s like with Joe Biden. How much worse could it get?


  3. James Hanley says:

    What’s the point of sabering champagne?Report

  4. Burt Likko says:

    I haven’t yet found the testicular fortitude to attempt sabrage. Even if I could pull it off, it would seem to me to be a waste of about a glass of the stuff just for the sake of looking cool.

    Then again, that’s why they make André.

    And chainmail gloves to protect myself from the shattering glass.Report

    • A fencing coach gave a few of us an opportunity to try on some left-over cheap bottles.  As I recall, the two most important bits of technique were hitting the proper spot rather precisely, and concentrating on the follow-through (pushing straight through as shown in the video clip).Report

  5. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Fact-checking?  Duh.

    There is editorializing – as in, constructing a narrative about a news story based upon content not in the story.

    Then there is fact-checking – as in, reporting whether or not a factual claim may by someone during an interview is correct or not.

    Yes, absolutely reporters should included checked-facts in their stories.Report

    • We have reached a point where we believe any fact reported that does not agree with our world view is pandering editorializing.

      Seriously, what correction of an R claim wouldn’t be seen as a lie by Rs and vice versa with Ds?Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Might this not have something to do with the fact (heh) that people have been allowed to make shit up for the last three decades and have it reported directly?Report

        • Oh, absolutely.  But how do we set the car in reverse now?  I’m actually writing a post about this, and how we have collectively decided to bundle “facts” into the the whole “marketplace of ideas” thang.  To our detriment.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            But how do we set the car in reverse now?

            You can’t.  A generation is lost to buffoonery.

            You can, however, stop acting like idiots and make politicians respond to reporters in a dialogue of critical thinking, instead of allowing politicians respond to reporters as if they’re children accepting stories about Santa Claus.

            Maybe the next generation will learn.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            But how do we set the car in reverse now?

            “Give me 40 acres and I’ll turn this truck around.”

            Reverse or a tight u-turn may not be possible, but a slow lengthy turn is not beyond the realm of the conceivable.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        But notice Tod – what you refer to here is only the reciprocal accusation of lying about the facts. And that could be the case even if one side consistently tells the truth. So you’re critique isn’t about facts per se, but about the ‘politics of facts’.

        Read The Reactionary Mind.


        • Tod Kelly in reply to Stillwater says:

          On your recommendation, Still, I have just placed a hold on it at our library.Report

          • Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            Nice. I think you’ll like it!Report

            • Perhaps this would be a good subject for a League book club or roundtable?  It would only be really useful if one of our resident conservatives participated, though.

              On the other hand, I’ll admit to being very skeptical of any book purporting to explain the mindset of political opponents.  They tend to be a bit too prone to confirmation bias problems for my tastes.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                I’d be in favor of that Mark. Personally, I found the arguments to be very generous to conservatives and didn’t think the author mischaracterized or trivialized their views. So I’d like to hear what resident conservatives thought about that part. (He presents a picture of conservatism from its Burkean through the present.)

                But the more interesting theses deal with the contemporary political struggles. The author doens’t overtly take sides on these issues or argue one way or the other as much as characterize the dynamic which creates and sustains them.


              • Looking at the book’s description at Amazon.com, I see the author counts Friedrich Hayek among the conservatives. Perhaps Stillwater can tell us whether the author justified this in light of Hayek’s noted essay, “Why I Am not a Conservative,” or whether the author has simply begun with a simplified assumption that produces a fundamental category error.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to James Hanley says:

                The thing that struck me was how William F. Buckley apparently called capitalism “boring.”  “Like sex,” he said.

                I think even if I’d always called myself a conservative, those three words would have snapped me out of it.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Heh. “so repetitious”Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                It’s a painstaking, arduous business that seems to go on forever; and just when you think you’re getting somewhere, nothing happens.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                Sheesh. Talk about a category error! James, I have no idea why he would be so monumentally stupid as to think Hayek is a conservative. And now that you mention it, I feel like a complete ass for recommending a book by someone so completely and obviously insane incompetent.

                But wait! Maybe it’s because some conservatives in America – like Reagan – have adopted Hayek as one of their own. Maybe he thinks about things a little differently than you or I do. Which why reading him might be worthwhile.Report

              • Stillwater,

                Why the snark?  It’s a serious question, one that both lays out the grounds for wondering and allows for the possibility that the author satisfactorily responds.

                I was sincere in wondering if you could give us an actual explanation.  If you can’t off the top of your head because you don’t remember those details, that’s not a problem.  But the response you gave is not reassuring.  That conservatives have adopted something from Hayek is not in itself persuasive evidence that Hayek was himself a conservative.  It’s just the standard overlap between libertarians and conservatives on economic issues, perhaps.

                Certainly if the author is talking not just about conservatism in general, but “reactionaries,” the Hayek seems a poor fit.  Even Burke seems a poor fit for that (he did, after all, support the American Revolution, and opposed the French Revolution on non-reactionary grounds.Report

              • I’d be willing to go the book club route so we can have a real, non-pointlessly snarky, conversation about this.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to James Hanley says:

                One might make a useful analogy with Hegel and the communists.  The communists borrowed all kinds of things from Hegel, and they certainly admired him.  But Hegel was no communist.

                The same can be said of Nietzsche and… well, never mind.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                James, I need to get my snarkometer recalibrated. I sensed some on your part that wasn’t there. I apologize for that. (But really, how would I know?)

                It might turn out that the book is a bunch of rubbish. But if so, figuring out why will be incredibly interesting and useful.Report

              • How could anyone possibly suspect me of ever being snarky?

                Re: Buckley thinking capitalism was boring.  It occurs to me to suspect he never read Schumpeter.Report

              • As one of the few resident righties, I’ll pass, having surveyed the landscape.  If Jonathan Haidt’s upcoming The Righteous Mind is on tap, that sounds good.


                “To understand what constitutes these moral matrices Haidt teamed with Craig Joseph from the University of Chicago. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder (with whom they both had studied), they developed the idea that humans possess six universal moral modules, or moral “foundations,” that get built upon to varying degrees across culture and time. They are: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. Haidt describes these six modules like a “tongue with six taste receptors.”

                “In this analogy,” he explains in the book, “the moral matrix of a culture is something like its cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on grass and tree bark, or even one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors.”

                Next, Haidt recruited his UVA colleague Brian Nosek and graduate student Jesse Graham to create a questionnaire that measured how people of certain political parties valued (in terms of importance) five moral foundations (he dropped Liberty/oppression). The questionnaire eventually manifested itself into the website www.YourMorals.org, and it has since gathered over two hundred thousand data points.”Report

  6. Steve S. says:

    The biggest problem I found in the NYT piece was the example he used to illustrate his point.  When Romney says that Obama has been “apologizing for America”  should the NYT fact-check this assertion?  Well, that’s just a stupid example; Romney’s statement is of course not literally true but is shorthand for a certain viewpoint on how world affairs should be conducted.  The argument over whether the U.S. should rule the world through violence and intimidation or a hybrid carrot-and-stick approach is not amenable to a fact-check, it’s simply our overlords having a narrow poiicy debate amongst themselves.

    Where journalists might find lower-hanging fruit in terms of improving their performance would be, for example, AGW.  Every time they do a story containing some politician’s stupid statement about it they could insert a pre-cooked aside along these lines:  “The vast majority of climate scientists say that global climate change with an anthropogenic component is in fact occurring.”  This is a simple statement of fact.

    A great deal more competent investigative journalism would of course be welcome, but since our current crop think that these efforts should be directed at Newt Gingrich’s marriages or Michelle Obama’s staff interactions I don’t hold a lot of hope for substantial improvement in this area.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Steve S. says:

      Here’s one that leaps to my mind.

      A group of acts are defined as torture by treaties to which the U.S. is a party.  Ronald Reagan condemned them as torture.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn did the same.

      We formerly condemned other nations for torturing whenever they did these acts.

      If you wanted to find governments who did not call these acts torture, then you’d have to look to the Nazis, the Soviets, and similarly odious regimes.  Even among them, they were often called torture anyway.

      Then the Bush administration says these acts aren’t torture.  They are “enhanced interrogation.”  And the Times changes its terminology without a whisper of protest.


  7. North says:

    *sigh* every time I think I’ve heard the most cringe inducing embaressing and mortifying thing about “ex-gays” and nothing will top it; something new comes along to shovel a few more feet out of the bottom of that hole. Those poor poor bastards.Report