July 31, 2003

: Who’s on first?…

The press “wants” Howard Dean to be the Democratic frontrunner. The quote marks indicate that this isn’t something agreed upon or consciously planned. Rather, Dean is dramatic because he not only counters the candidates of his own party on the biggest issue (so far) of the campaign, but he counters Bush directly and vociferously. And he’s raising lots of money in a new way.

For example, The New York Post reports today: “Suddenly, Democrats are coming smack up against a stunning fact: anti-war upstart Howard Dean has become their 2004 presidential front-runner.”

Surely, Dean has entered the top-tier. While he is doing better, there is no way to justify calling him the frontrunner yet. Joe Lieberman has held that position solidly since at least January. Current polls suggest Lieberman is pulling ahead slightly despite the press all but writing him off at this point (because the press “wants” Lieberman out; he’s not dramatic). These national polls are the ones that count according to the Mayer predictive model of primary campaigns. (via PoliticalWire)

July 31, 2003

10 words…

On 29 July, the Washington Post calls for President Bush to hold a news conference before he heads to Crawford, Texas. On 30 July, with 90 minutes notice to the press, President Bush holds a press conference. In between these two events I said: “As much as many of us would like to see him take direct questions, if I were advising Bush today I’d tell him to hold out for a better news cycle.”

That he held a conference does not make the advice I suggested wrong. That he did a good job, however, does. I made this mistake based on my assumption that he would not handle well the types of questions he’d get in this news cycle.

What do I mean by “good” and “well”? Read today’s articles in the Post, The New York Times, and read the transcript. The news, according to these accounts, is Bush’s statement: “I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course.” Is this a manly admission of responsibility or stating the obvious in regard to presidential speech? In any case, he understood what it was the press wanted to hear.

July 30, 2003

The definition of spin…

Spinsanity analyzes the furor concerning President Bush’s 16 words about Iraq, Africa, and uranium. I think this paragraph is telling:

It is true, as some critics point out, that the phrase “British intelligence has learned” implies certainty that the claim is true. In this regard, the President’s statement was indisputably misleading given the lack of confidence within and outside the US government about the accuracy of the claim. However, since the British intelligence is still secret, we simply can’t know whether there is other evidence indicating that Iraq attempted to obtain uranium from Niger or other African countries.

What Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan identify here is called “spin.” We have no way to know for sure just what the situation is (despite an assertion of fact), but we do feel the pathos–the intended persuasive appeal of those 16 words. Recall the embodied theory of truth I mentioned earlier in regard to this situation: A statement is true if what the speaker/auditor understands a statement to mean fits what the speaker/auditor understands the situation to be. A speaker engages in spin, or worse, whenever the speaker obscures or shifts one or more of those understandings for the auditor. The 16 words did not “rise to the level” of presidential address, but apparently they rose to the level of presidential spin.

As Spinsanity so cogently demonstrates, however, the spinning goes both ways: Opponents of the President’s Iraq policy claiming a specific lie and the administration’s making ham-handed, yet revealing, rationalizations.

July 29, 2003

Nice try…

An editorial in the Washington Post today calls on President Bush to hold a news conference soon. He held his last one in early March. And he’s held fewer to date than recent presidents.

Press conferences are about more than a president answering questions. Presidents use these events strategically and rhetorically. As much as many of us would like to see him take direct questions, if I were advising Bush today I’d tell him to hold out for a better news cycle. Why should a popular president expose himself to tough (maybe) questions at a time when soldiers die daily in guerrilla attacks, the deficit grows like a fungus, and unemployment reaches new highs? That’s just asking for trouble.

All the president–any president in this situation–could offer would be talking points–the commonplaces of governance. Further, Bush is prone to misstatements and malapropisms. Why risk appearing vulnerable when your polls are still good?

July 29, 2003

: A one and a two…

Stand by Your Ad

Sometimes it’s hard to be a candidate
Giving all your love to just one ad
You’ll have bad press
And it’ll have worse press
Saying things that you don’t understand
But if you love it you’ll forgive it
Even though it’s hard to understand
And if you love it
Oh be proud of it
‘Cause after all it’s just an ad
Stand by your ad
Give it good arguments to cling to
And something accurate to come to
When nights are cold and lonely
Stand by your ad
And tell the world you love it
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your ad
Stand by your ad
And show the world you love it
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your ad

July 29, 2003

More on PLD and news coverage…

Kevin Munden sent an e-mail to Jay Manifold yesterday with more thoughts on power law distribution and news coverage. He copied me, and I am posting his letter here along with an Excel graph of the data.

July 28, 2003

: Job application #2…

Com’on, Dr. Dean. You need competent help in the communications department. I’m available for hire, and, from the looks of things, you need me fast.

Howard Kurtz’s article about the Dean Defense Forces is proof your campaign is nearly clueless about how to interact with the press. And, if you’ve read my essay on the press-politics of primary campaigns, you know that it is the press that will make or break you before the Iowa caucuses. And, if not then, certainly in a national campaign against a popular president.

There’s nothing wrong with letter writing campaigns aimed at letters to the editor columns. But targeting individual reporters for what amounts to political spam is just stupidity of the first magnitude, especially if the e-mail writers use talking points or invective to press their arguments. (via PoliticalWire)

UPDATE (1:15 p.m.): Certainly, the press should be challenged and critiqued. I see two problems (among many) with targeting individual reporters with coordinated e-mails:

First, you risk a plot change in the master narrative by being annoying. Reporters, from my experience, do not much care what a bunch of e-mailers think about much of anything. Except that they will note the annoyance and transfer that annoyance to the candidate.

Second, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Individual reporters may certainly write unfair or erroneous things. They are, however, far more likely to listen to criticism that comes through proper channels, i.e. from their editors. And grassroots efforts to reach editors are far more likely to succeed if reasonable voices reach them through letters to the editor, columns, forums, and other traditional means.

July 28, 2003

I beg to differ…

Chicago Tribune reporter Maureen Ryan seems to think the Hunting for Bambi hoax infected the internet and this lead to its becoming a mainstream news story. I beg to differ.

The first people suckered into this publicity stunt were TV “journalists,” associated news web sites, and the wire services. Ryan claims this timeline:

July 10: KLAS TV runs first coverage based on press releases.
July 13: Internet sites such as Fark and Metafilter mention Bambi.
July 15-18: Reuters, UPI, other media outlets, and Bill O’Reilly on FOX.

From Ryan’s article:

By that point, it didn’t seem to matter how skeptical or thorough the reporting was–the tale had taken on a life of its own. “A Web site can spread some story around, and if a newspaper somewhere picks it up, that’s when it goes haywire,” says Drew Curtis of Fark.com, who gets hundreds of “tips” for his site that turn out to be hoaxes. “It seems like anything that hits the [wire services] gets picked up verbatim.”

Few journalists paid heed to Snopes.com, a site devoted to debunking hoaxes, which posted a skeptical entry about the story on their site soon after it broke. By July 19, the Snopes folks were saying they thought the Bambi site was a scam. As proof, the Snopes diggers unearthed an earlier version of the Web site that was still accessible: It said nothing about men being able to buy Bambi hunts; it only promoted naked “hunting” videos.

The print press in Las Vegas also helped expose Burdick. The Las Vegas Sun reported on July 17 that Burdick’s business license was for selling videos (“no porn,” his application said)–not Bambi safaris. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported the same day that the “hunter” KLAS interviewed was a producer of topless videos who, if he was to be believed, somehow came up with $4,000 for his Bambi-hunt despite living in a tiny condo in a seedy part of Vegas.

This timeline is simply not accurate. I posted my coverage on 17 July at 8:30 a.m. CDT and quoted Snopes.com. This means Snopes must have been on the job by at least 16 July (probably a lot sooner), which meant that proper skepticism could be found on the internet in time to save many media outlets from this silly embarrassment.

The reporting Ryan alludes to was never “skeptical or thorough” unless she’s referring to the folks at Snopes and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Further, Drew Curtis of Fark.com clearly indicates that the false information that gets spread around on his site comes from the wire services–as anyone can plainly see who has bothered to check out Fark. The whole point of Fark is to highlight news of the weird, not act as fact-checking clearinghouse.

Sorry, you can’t pin this TV-initiated stupidity on the web or the blogosphere. Many of us, along with the print journalists in Las Vegas, were demonstrating proper skepticism early on. (Yes, there was plenty of silliness on the web, too. But that’s to be expected. It’s not to be expected from journalists.)

Ryan ends her article noting that the internet “lends itself to pranks.” Quite true. This particular prank, however, began with press releases sent to a gullible local TV station.

July 27, 2003

20 years of happiness…

At a wedding this weekend in America:

Wife: What are they doing?
Me: It looks like line dancing.
Wife: Yes, but look at the age range.
Me: Uh-huh.
Wife: They all know it.
Me: They must have lives.
Wife: They must not be bloggers.
Me: *snorts of laughter*
Wife: Maybe this is why MediaMinded quit.
Me: Do you suppose he knows how to do this?
Wife: What? I don’t even know what it is I don’t know.
Me: Well put, Mr. Rumsfeld. *squeezes wife’s hand*

We celebrate our 20th anniversary this week. Enjoy your Sunday. See you on Monday.

July 26, 2003

Connect the dots…

Jay Manifold adds to the investigation of power law distribution in news coverage, and my question of the influence of The New York Times, by wondering how some dots might connect:

  • An economist at North Carolina State wonders how it is that editorial writers for The New York Times are able to consistently get away with basic misunderstandings of economic systems (and other systems that require specific knowledge): “So either there is a market failure of some sort in the entire national news business, or there are a large number of news consumers who enjoy reading or hearing ignorant assertions by untrained people.” (via Donald L. Luskin)
  • An article at Frontpagemagazine.com reports on a recent survey of 1,000 adults that claims: “73 percent of Americans found their local newspapers to be reliable; 72 percent found Fox News reliable; 66 percent said the same of CNN; and 59 percent found the Wall Street Journal reliable. Just 46 percent of Americans found that information reported in the New York Times is reliable.” The writer, Bob Kohn, is the author of a book debunking the Time’s credibility. His article further states that “survey appears to betray the public

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