Nate Silver has a computer model. Each day he plugs the data from the various national and swing state polls into that model, numbers are crunched, simulations are run, and he posts the results on his New York Times blog indicating who is more likely to win the presidential election: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. (As of this posting, Silver's analysis has Obama winning in 74.6 percent of scenarios.) And for this, Silver is coming under attack from pundits who insist that their gut feeling tells them the race is a true toss-up.
"Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes," complained Joe Scarborough on the October 29 Morning Joe.
Complaints like Scarborough's are helped along by publications that have an interest in maintaining the view of a race that is essentially a flip of the coin, and in preserving the importance of their own roles as gatekeepers with access to critical insider information. Politico's Dylan Byers cited Scarborough's criticism along with that of New York Times columnist David Brooks in positing that Silver may be a "one-term celebrity."
"If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don't expect, like the 47 percent comment or a debate performance, I think you think you are a wizard. That's not possible," Times columnist David Brooks, a moderate conservative, said on PBS earlier this month. "The pollsters tell us what's happening now. When they start projecting, they're getting into silly land."
It makes sense that pundits like Scarborough and Brooks would have it out for a numbers guy like Silver. Their oeuvre is the intangible. They analyze based on gut feelings and nonspecifics. Their great trick is to transform the utterly unquantifiable into something approaching concrete certainty.
Mitt Romney's attack on President Obama following the deadly assaults on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Libya and Egypt yesterday drew no shortage of scrutiny from journalists who pointed out (correctly) that Romney got wrong the basic chronology of the incidents, and questioned the propriety of Romney's comments overall. This in turn has led to a backlash from conservatives who are faulting the media's response to Romney, arguing that we are in a presidential campaign and Romney should be allowed to "criticize" the president on foreign policy.
No argument here. The challenger should absolutely critique the policies of the incumbent. But that's not what Romney did. The core of Romney's response was a personal attack on the president for "sympathizing" with the people who killed U.S. diplomatic personnel, and the conservatives lashing out at the media are trying to mask that personal attack as foreign policy "criticism."
For example, the Wall Street Journal editorializes today that "the parsons of the press corps are offended by the debate. They're upset that Mitt Romney had the gall to criticize the State Department for a statement that the White House itself disavowed." National Review editor Rich Lowry writes in Politico:
When a U.S. Embassy gets stormed by protesters overseas, it's usually a matter of public concern. It might occasion headlines and commentary. Even debate between presidential candidates.
Unless one of the candidates is President Barack Obama and the other is Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Then, everything changes.
In the immediate aftermath of the deadly attacks on U.S. diplomatic installations in Egypt and Libya, the political debate fastened on the propriety of Romney criticizing the administration for its initial response. You know -- important stuff.
Forget the dead body of our ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, who had been instrumental in aiding the rebellion. Forget the desecration of the embassy's flag in Cairo. Forget the question of what we're going to do to find the perpetrators or respond to two governments unable or unwilling to fulfill their most basic international responsibilities.
The reports from earlier this week about how Obama would use foreign policy as cudgel against Romney had barely faded when the media pack turned around and declared politics must stop at the water's edge, thank you very much.
The old complaint about Romney was that he didn't talk about foreign policy. The newly minted complaint about Romney was that he did talk about foreign policy. He gets it coming and going, and everywhere in between.
Lowry concludes: "If this isn't the time to talk about this record, when is the right time? For the press, politics doesn't stop at the water's edge. It stops wherever is most convenient for Obama's reelection campaign." One thing you'll notice about Lowry's op-ed is that, for all its exhortations of the importance of critiquing Obama's record, he doesn't actually quote anything from Romney's statement on the embassy attacks.
Conservative media are attempting to use a new paper by climate contrarian Anthony Watts to question the reliability of global temperature records. But the paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, only addresses surface temperature records in the continental U.S., which have been confirmed by satellite data.
Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei have an article up this morning with a dog-bites-man headline and premise: "To GOP, blatant bias in vetting." Republicans? Alleging liberal media bias? Pardon me while I find some pearls to clutch.
The conceit behind this whole affair is that Haley Barbour and Ari Fleischer told Allen and VandeHei that "liberal bias" is real and it's devastating, and Allen and Vandehei believe them:
Republicans cry "bias" so often it feels like a campaign theme. It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true, even to people who don't listen to Rush Limbaugh -- or Haley Barbour.
The best evidence Allen and VandeHei could muster regards the placement of stories about Mitt Romney's high-school bullying and Barack Obama's high-school drug use:
And the imbalance can do slow, low-grade but unmistakable damage to Romney: Swing voters are just getting to know him. And coverage suggesting he is mean or extravagant can soak in, even though voters who took the time to weigh the details might dismiss the storyline.
It's certainly hard to argue that the Romneys' horse-riding habits today are worse than the Maraniss revelations, which have gotten little mainstream coverage.
And the horse-riding story came a few weeks after a second story that made Republicans see red -- another front-pager, this time in the Washington Post, that hit Mitt Romney for bullying a kid who might have been gay, in high school nearly a half-century ago. The clear implication to readers: Romney was a mean, insensitive jerk.
Maraniss works for the Post and his pot-smoking scoop, which included details of Obama's college-era dope-smoking club and waste-no-weed rules for inhaling it, never made the front of his own paper.
Labor Department statistics say that government employment has decreased by 608,000 since February 2009. Nevertheless, Fox News and Politico both uncritically reported Mitt Romney's false claim that "[w]e have 145,000 more government workers under this president."
Several media outlets have distorted comments by an EPA official, falsely suggesting that he said "oil companies should be crucified." In fact, the official was using an analogy, which he has since apologized for, to describe a common approach to regulatory enforcement: making examples out of those who break the law.
Ahead of today's release of the annual Social Security trustees' report, Trudy Lieberman of the Columbia Journalism Review reviewed the failures of the mainstream media in its coverage of Social Security. As Lieberman wrote, "[M]uch of the press has reported only one side of this story using 'facts' that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others."
A great example of the media's unwillingness to accurately report on Social Security came when Texas Gov. Rick Perry described the program as a "Ponzi scheme." Most coverage of the incident focused either on its political fallout or presented the issue in a "he said-she said" style -- ignoring the false nature of the "Ponzi" attack.
Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. People who call it a Ponzi scheme are not "wrong but partially right," they're not "called wrong by critics" -- they're just wrong.
A Ponzi scheme is a criminal endeavor that involves opaque financial dealings that promise investment returns when none or next to none actually exist. Social Security's finances are crystal clear, and the interest generated by its trust fund is quite real.
A Ponzi scheme eventually collapses. According to last year's report, Social Security can continue as it is, paying full benefits for nearly 25 years, and 77 percent of promised benefits thereafter.
During coverage of Perry's claims, the Los Angeles Times wrote that "[s]upporters of Social Security argue that the program is a general benefit," while "[o]pponents, like Perry, see the program as a robbing of one generation to pay for the older one, a type of cheat akin to a Ponzi scheme." At no point did the article acknowledge that the "Ponzi scheme" attack was incorrect.
Meanwhile, a Politico story focused entirely on reactions to Perry's comments from Republican officials and completely ignored whether or not his comments had any basis in reality. And a Christian Science Monitor article reported that Perry "says he is not backing down from what he said, but the point is to get people's attention and push for ways to reform Social Security so it will endure long enough to help today's youngsters."
(UPDATE 3/2 5:18PM An Editor's Note now appended to the Politico story says it "mischaracterized the testimony of Energy Secreatry Steven Chu." The headline, lede, and body of the story have been corrected.)
A Politico story fueling misguided attacks on Energy Secretary Steven Chu is not borne out by what actually occurred. The article titled, "Chu: DOE working to wean U.S. off oil, not lower prices," claimed:
The Energy Department isn't working to lower gasoline prices directly, Secretary Steven Chu said Tuesday after a Republican lawmaker scolded him for his now-infamous 2008 comment that gas prices in the U.S. should be as high as in Europe.
But this report is based on an assumption made by Politico reporter Alex Guillen about how Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS) was going to finish a question. If that wasn't bad enough, Politico doubled down with another article today about Newt Gingrich -- who cited Guillen's story -- calling for Chu to be fired for the remarks. (UPDATE 3/2 6:00PM Politico has also corrected this article.)
Here's what actually happened in the hearing (fuller video and transcript below):
REP. NUNNELEE: But is the overall goal to get our price--
CHU: No, the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil to -- to build and strengthen our economy and to decrease our dependency on oil.
But here's Politico's version of what happened:
"But is the overall goal to get our price" of gasoline down, asked Nunnelee.
"No, the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil, to build and strengthen our economy," Chu replied.
Guillen built his story on what he assumed Nunnelee was asking and gave no indication that the question was, in fact, ambiguous. There is good reason to believe that Chu thought Nunnelee was actually asking, "Is the overall goal to get our price up to European levels," since this was Nunnelee's previous question:
NUNNELEE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Secretary for being here. Before you were nominated, you were quoted as saying, quote, "Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe." I can't look at motivations. I have to look at results. And under this administration, the price of gasoline is doubled. While bumping $4 a gallon in North Mississippi, today the price of gasoline in Europe is about $8 a gallon, and the people of North Mississippi can't be here.
So, I have to be here and be their voice for them. And I have to tell you that $8 a gallon gasoline makes them afraid. It's a cruel tax on the people of North Mississippi as they try to go back and forth to work. It's a cloud hanging over economic development and job creation, and it appears to me this administration continues to drag its feet on oil exploration on fossil fuel development and recovery. How do you respond to that?
UPDATE (2/10/12): National Journal accurately identified Michael McKenna as a "Republican energy lobbyist" in a January 26 article. Politico, on the other hand, has quoted McKenna without noting that he is a lobbyist in at least two articles since this post was published.
One of these is not like the others:
National Journal reporters have quoted Michael McKenna 21 times in the past year, more than any other news outlet in the Nexis database. In each case, McKenna provided comments on the politics surrounding energy and environment issues, including EPA regulations, climate change, clean energy, and gasoline prices. Not once did National Journal note that McKenna is a lobbyist who represents oil and utility companies. Instead, he was identified as a "Republican strategist who focuses on energy issues," or a "GOP energy strategist."
McKenna is the President of MWR Strategies, which aims "to help our clients advance their agendas in the public policy and media arenas." According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, MWR Strategies has worked for major fossil fuel interests including American Electric Power, Southern Co and Koch Industries, for several years.
National Journal is not alone in omitting this information about McKenna. Politico reporters quoted the "GOP energy strategist" in 14 energy and environment stories over the past year without mentioning his lobbying firm or its clients.
Tonight, Politico will host an awards ceremony honoring the political figures they consider the "Policymakers of the Year" in three different arenas: energy, healthcare, and technology.
And just who are these lucky Washington powerbrokers whom other Washington powerbrokers have deemed worthy of recognition? In the energy field, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. In healthcare, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). And in tech policy, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT).
The selection of Ryan as the healthcare "Policymaker of the Year" has raised some eyebrows, but even more interesting are the technology honorees, particularly when you look at the list of sponsors underwriting the Politico awards show.
According to Politico, Smith and Leahy are being honored for the passage of the America Invents Act, a patent reform bill, which was "the only major piece of tech legislation signed into law in 2011 -- a rare instance in which a bipartisan effort bore fruit."
Smith and Leahy are also the chief sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), respectively. Both bills, which purport to combat online piracy of copyrighted material, face opposition from big-name technology companies that fear they will stifle online innovation. Legal scholars have denounced the bills as unconstitutional and said that they are tantamount to Internet censorship. Perhaps most significantly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA) both oppose SOPA in its current form.
Just about everyone hates these bills ... but the entertainment industry loves them. And among the sponsors of the Politico awards gala is the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the video game industry's chief lobbying group. According to disclosure records, the ESA has spent thousands of dollars this year lobbying in support of PIPA, designated S.968. (For the individual filings, click here, here, here, and here.) ESA has also donated $1,000 to Smith each election cycle going back to 2008. They donated $2,400 to Leahy in 2010.
That a chief proponent of these anti-piracy bills is also a sponsor of an awards ceremony honoring the chief authors of these same bills is unseemly, to say the least, and Politico should disclose this relationship.
In a Politico op-ed, Steve Forbes defended the taxpayer subsidies enjoyed by oil and gas companies with a series of false claims that echo industry talking points.
It's difficult, at times, having to constantly invent and manage new narratives around which to craft political stories. Yesterday, Politico was busily hyping the Bloomberg-Washington Post Republican primary debate as "now or never" for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Today, they're saying Perry eschewed "a debate knock-out" and instead used it as "a pivot point" to move into the policy arena. New day, new narrative.
And their story this morning on Michele Bachmann's debate performance stands out as a fine example of narrative generation at the expense of factual considerations:
The Michele Bachmann conservatives fell in love with during the campaign's early debates returned Tuesday night.
Bachmann, whose campaign has suffered a series of unforced errors and clunky debate performances since she won the Ames straw poll in August, delivered a solid performance at the Washington Post/Bloomberg forum, striking her campaign themes while discussing complex economic issues without a stumble.
She gave serious answers -- with the exception of a lighthearted joke comparing Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan to a sign of the devil -- and didn't whiff when Mitt Romney lobbed her a gift softball question.
Politico saw a "solid performance," flawless discussion of "complex economic issues," and "serious answers" with no "stumbles" from the Minnesota Republican. Let's take a specific look at what they found so impressive, and contrast it with what others in the fact-checking community thought.
In the rush to cover the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that received a loan guarantee from the federal government, many news media outlets have misrepresented or omitted key facts.
I've always been amused watching conservatives attack progressives for their "worship" of Obama (alternately and pejoratively dubbed "The Obamessiah" or simply "The One") and then raise their own voices in unalloyed praise of Ronald Reagan, who they insist saved America by relentlessly cutting taxes and shrinking government. The beatification of Reagan by the right, however, is a classic example of mythology overtaking the man. Ronald Reagan -- the small-government champion of trickle-down economics -- raised taxes.
He raised taxes quite a bit, actually. And he did so both to reduce the deficit and stabilize Social Security. The media have been lax in pointing this out whenever Republican presidential candidates proudly declare their tax-cutting, deficit-exploding economic plans to be a continuation of the policies laid out by the 40th president. So it was refreshing to see Politico publish a good examination of Reagan's tax-hiking policies and how they would fare in today's political climate:
With the nation at risk of default next month, the Republicans' fierce anti-tax orthodoxy is running square into the Ghost of the Gipper -- the GOP's great modern, pre-tea party hero, Ronald Reagan.
Indeed, a POLITICO review of Reagan's own budget documents shows that the Republican president repeatedly signed deficit-reduction legislation in the 1980's that melded annual tax increases with spending cuts just as President Barack Obama is now asking Congress to consider.
The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA) is the most famous, because of its historic size and timing, a dramatic course correction that quickly followed Reagan's signature income tax cuts in 1981. But in the six years after were four more deficit-reduction acts, which combined to almost double TEFRA's revenue impact on an annual basis.
In Reagan's case, he also signed major tax reform and his signature 1981 tax cuts forever changed the landscape.
A decade after his 1981 Economic Recovery Act, for example, Reagan budgets predicted those tax cuts would reduce annual receipts for the Treasury by as much as $350.2 billion. But the same tables also show that the combination of TEFRA and the four other deficit-reduction bills effectively took back a third of this in the name of deficit reduction.
The rich diversity of Reagan-era tax changes is most striking, impacting even such conservative priorities now as the estate tax. At the same time, Reagan also signed laws to double the federal gasoline tax to build more roads and increase payroll taxes to stabilize Social Security.
This part of the Reagan legacy is often overlooked, owing in large part to the determined right-wing effort to push the Reagan myth at the expense of historical accuracy.
Several media outlets have reported on a letter sent by House Speaker John Boehner to President Obama signed by "150 economists" who support Boehner's spending cut proposal. But these media outlets have ignored that many of the economists who signed the letter have made baseless predictions in the past, some have endorsed dubious theories, and others have used extreme rhetoric to attack Obama and other Democrats.